The “Computers” Section of the Bookstore

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I ran into the local Barnes & Noble today to grab a coffee. It’s been a while, but the well-publicized demise of the traditional bookstore and now literature on paper in general has taken its toll on the brick-and-mortar. The bookstore is now a glorified coffee shop/study hall, eBook reader exhibit, and a well-lit archive of what the ancients referred to as “books”.

In fact, when I first entered the store, front-and-center was Nook color, and after just a few seconds of poking around the home screen – I was trying to figure out how well Android held up given its diminutive processing power – two salespeople came over to try to “show me the cool things it could do”.

I actually did want to check out a few books, though; specifically, two books on design someone had recommended on Hacker News, “Design is How it Works” and “Design Elements“.  Of course I didn’t find them, but in perusing the computers and web design section of the store, it struck me that having to buy a book for doing something on the web is terribly and ironically backward.

For some reason, in 2011, when it’s trivial to access the 5 million terabytes of data that is the internet in the palm of my hand, depth of knowledge – and implicitly, quality – is still found in a leafy papyrus sandwiched between laminated cardboard. There are still books written and published on learning everything from web design to Pylons to 3DS MAX, and they still sell anywhere from $30 to $80. Written reference manuals and guides are still of much higher quality than their online equivalent; compare Google’s closure library documentation with Closure: The Definitive Guide.

I suppose the reasoning has been that books are still sellable, so instead of documenting the technical details of a project or program on a site or a wiki (or even in the program’s own tutorials), a domain expert can become an author and submit 15 chapters to a publisher, who turns around and sells them at $3 per chapter. Yet, there are so many disadvantages to the paper format, especially when the subject matter is programming and software. Off the top of my head:

  • No searching on a page. The table of contents and index don’t count.
  • Information is outdated pretty quickly. When I skim through a book, the first thing I check is the year it was published, to see how much of its advice still apply.
  • No direct links to related pages, a.k.a. web hyperlinks. For programming references, not having easy-to-access cross references really hurts usability.
  • No corrections, unless you wait for a revised edition.
  • No video, audio, or any kind of rich media beyond pictures, and even then you have to pay a premium for good quality, color pictures printed on nice paper.

The web as a publishing platform holds so many advantages compared to ink and paper. The only thing I can think of that’s stopping experts from publishing their complete technical expertise online is the inability for digital media to monetize properly; people are still unwilling to pay $20 for a 300-page PDF. Sure, e-books get us a part of the way there, but our current crop of e-book readers are designed to be an analog to paper books, and has yet to be optimized for references or quick skims.

But just then, my train of thought was broken by the brista handing me a grande soy latte, and I flip my phone to peruse the world, 140 characters at a time.

  •  There came a moment when the Internet was ‘just’ ubiquitous enough in my routine and ‘just’ fast enough for my preferences when I stood in a book store and realised I didnt need to buy a book for anything more than fiction. Now I own a kindle and the delay between thinking of owning a book and its ownership is less than a minute ( for a given value  of that book being on Amazon ) and I have started to reclaim my shelf space at home.  I should , and am told , feel sad that some great ‘thing’ is being lost. The way I see it, I have  gained more and lost little.  Thanks for making me think about my books again 

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  • One B&N here in San Diego has NO computer books, while another is fully stocked.

    Like anything else in tech, this subject has many components, and a full set of tradeoffs. Analyzing the subject requires making a list (on your choice of paper or a computer. 🙂  One of the remaining clear advantages of books is with “tutorial” books, which take you through a self-paced introduction to, say, learning how to write apps for Android or iOS.  This kind of experience just isn’t anywhere as convenient on a screen (unless you have multiple monitors.)  But that’s one of the last advantages.  

    However, there’s no guarantee information on the computer is going to be updated either.  So much of it is abandoned because the author has moved on.  And online forums are littered with stale or no-longer-relevant information that you must spend the mental energy to determine that (and exposing yourself to things you didn’t yet know you didn’t need to know. 🙂  While online tech info has potential advantages, “information management” is still widely ignored and results in things online just being a different kind of mess.  (sigh)  

    Looking things up using Google results in things not in order of date, irrelevant information, pitches for products using keywords in your query, and the most horrible thing of all, there is no guarantee you formed your search term optimally, and because you didn’t use a certain keyword, you’ll miss excellent resources.  This is my area of expertise and I could go on, but I think we get the idea.  Tradeoffs are frustrating!  he he

    • Totally agreed on the difficulty of information management; you’re right, publishing online is not a cure-all, but I do see it as removing one barrier in the process in keeping information updated and easily searchable/accessible. Whether the author has the motivations to do that is another matter entirely.

      That said, books do have an intrinsic filter of quality to them: if you take the trouble to write a book and get it published, you probably have more authority than the random forum poster or Stack Overflow response (on average). Curation continues to be a challenge for web communities – I’m thinking of  Digg, Reddit, Hacker News, Slashdot, etc. – so maybe that alone will let books live for another hundred years.

  • Casey Strouse

    I think buying any books on computers (in dead tree format) these days is ironic.  I end up reading most books on my iPod touch and my laptop.  I really like being paper-free.

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