why O’Reilly can’t read

Tim O’Reilly is one of the few public figures in technology who honestly deserve the term “futurist.”  He’s a vibrant speaker and thinker; every time I’ve seen him talk, he’s set my mind spinning around a universe of amazing ideas.  The future is unevenly distributed because he’s got more of it in his head than most mortals.

This is of course the kind of encomium you give right before you try to criticize someone who knows a hell of lot more than you do.  Ah well, that’s what blogs are for, aren’t they?

With the launch of Amazon’s Kindle 2, O’Reilly looks into the future and says that the best e-book reader today will be gone in three years.  He makes a comparison to Microsoft’s effort in the mid-’90s to make a portal for delivering proprietary information over the Internet.  Tim quite correctly told Microsoft’s then-CTO that the open standards of the World Wide Web would provide a far superior means for dissemination of information, so that publishers that did not embrace the Web would get left behind, along with the proprietary platforms that compete with the Web.

He was right then but he’s wrong now to extend the analogy to books.  I don’t think O’Reilly understands books, or at least, he’s chosen to hide his understanding for polemic purposes.  I realize that I’m entering into serious chutzpah territory here – not only does this man see the future in ways I can’t imagine, but he’s been a successful book publisher for over 20 years.  He’s forgotten more about books than I’ll ever know.  And maybe that’s the problem.

O’Reilly apparently looks at books as just an arbitrary format for delivering information. He makes the question of the Kindle simply one of determining the most efficient means of delivering information over an interconnected web.  And so you can look into a future of free content and open standards and conclude that there’s no room for a proprietary e-book reader.  Supposedly everyone will be reading books on their laptops and iPhones and the only e-book readers that will survive will be computing devices that adhere to the same open standards as these other devices.

But that vision of the future ignores the properties of the book as a format.  For some kinds of books, the format really is only an obstacle to efficient delivery of information.  A perfect example is the book used as an example in O’Reilly’s article, iPhone: The Missing Manual.  The purpose of this book is to describe how to use an iPhone; it’s not meant to be read cover-to-cover but to be dipped into in order to retrieve information.  This is not a book so much as, as the title says, a manual.  Virtually all of the books in the O’Reilly catalog have this property – they are manuals for delivering information, not books that deliver a narrative.

O’Reilly would disagree with the contention that technical manuals can’t be narratives, so let me be clear that I’m not saying that.  I’m saying that even if a manual has the form of a narrative, delivering a narrative is not the purpose of the manual.  The purpose of the manual is to deliver information.  As opposed to what I’ll call a “book” – the purpose of a book is to deliver a narrative.  You may also get lots and lots of information, but the primary goal of the reader is to experience a narrative, not to simply learn the information.

Sure, it’s a cheap trick to try to win an argument by defining terms, but there’s a reason it should work here.  Say that manuals are works that are read to receive information – I agree these will need to be on open standards, and I agree that proprietary e-book readers for these will not exist.  And say that books are works that are read to enjoy a narrative – I think this activity has special features that will support proprietary e-book readers.  So you see what happens if I am right?  All manuals will disappear into the Intarwebs, and the only things left on e-book readers are the things that I am calling books!

And what are those “special features” for reading a narrative for narrative’s sake?  Well, the dry terms are these:  form factor, display characteristics (electronic ink), weight, weatherproofing, keyboard layout and peripherals (or lack thereof).  And the magic of books are these:  the feel in your hand, the pages racing under your fingertips, reading all day curled up on the couch, reading in the bath, reading with a flashlight under the covers, reading until you disappear into the book.  All right, finally I’ve tipped my hand, you might have guessed it all along:  I love books.  I’m not alone:

I’m very fond of paper books. I have run out of wall space in my house for bookshelves. One of my hobbies is to collect old editions of bestselling books from bygone eras (many of them now largely forgotten) to find out just what people in that time found so compelling. I find that many “great” books have a timeless quality, but the second tier down, in which grand human themes stand out less than the time-bound peculiarities of an age, provide a fascinating window onto the past.

That’s Tim O’Reilly, from the same Amazon interview linked above; according to Wikipedia he was a classics major, and it shows.  I don’t think either of us believe that people will stop loving paper books, just as many people still enjoy plays that have been produced for centuries.  I guess I’m a more modern bibliophile than O’Reilly in that I believe that an electronic format can retain some of that same magic, and I’m a less open idealogue in that I think open standards will need more than three years to surpass the best proprietary e-book reader today.

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