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Words, the Internet and permanence

March 4, 2011

For a while, I’ve been thinking about the way writing has changed in the medium of the web. I grew up just as the internet was becoming part of people’s lives. Dial-up connections that screeched and squawked, linking people ever so slowly to pages that were mostly text. Because graphics could take what, even then, seemed like forever to load and sharpen their focus.

Growing up, I read magazines and newspapers, turning inky pages one by one. (To my father’s dismay, I read the comics and the lifestyle section, and only skimmed the main news. I love features dearly, but I still mostly read the headlines and skim the actual news for the gist.) Each sentence I read was finite, a whole product that would stay fixed.

Now, of course, everything written seems like a dialogue. Post it on Facebook and watch the comments roll in. Tweet and retweet. Authors I’ve never met are my Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Authors I have met, too.

The act of writing has become malleable. Write the post, take it live, then pull it back to edit, smother a typo or two, make it better. That option is always there, mercifully. (It’s saved me a few times, both on personal blogs and in work-blogging settings.) Updates become seamless parts of the story, sometimes erasing what went before. Refreshing the page lacks the urgency of “stop the presses.”

What happens to books, now that published doesn’t necessarily mean finished or closed? Who knows? I’m still dubious of e-books, which is about both the ideology and the interface. I like turning paper pages, rubbing my fingers along the tops and sides of spines. I dog-ear pages. (I know, I know, this makes me a bad person.)

If anything… I see books and the Internet in an excellent, supplemental partnership.

Social media. I’ve read some exceedingly smart  books about the culture and business of social media, and I notice that the paper pages, of course, have supplements on the web, to track the latest evolutions. Some general ideas seem to be true no matter what, but the specifics and techniques and trends shift, the tools and etiquette evolve. It really makes sense for the web and the static book to speak in dialogue here, to create and explore community information.

Technology in general, especially user manuals. Does printing them even make sense at this speed of change? Though, books about society and technology are interesting, even though they feel historical fairly soon after they’re published. Reading a book about the history or culture that grows up around technology’s use makes more sense than reading a book about the methods of using that technology. You still need the words that explain, but keep them on the Internet where they can be tinkered with along with the technology.

Recipes work beautifully with paper and the Internet working in tandem. I love cookbooks, and have quite a collection. The books become art, rather than functional tools. The bulk of my day-to-day recipe hunting involves a web search or two.  Although the quantity is evolving, recipes that live online seem not to change very often, more than a tweak someone suggests in the comments. The community evolves, more than the recipe itself.

Lady Gaga may only make sense in cyberspace. I’ve got a biography of her I’ve been meaning to read and review. But… it feels like wandering around a Lady Gaga museum or retrospective. Because– meat dress! Hatching out of an egg! She moves at a fiber-optic speed of strange. Googling her new video might have been a mistake before dinner.

I keep coming back to the idea of the e-book and then rebelling against it. For tactile reasons, mostly. I like the look of a page, the feel of pages under my fingers. I like turning pages better than pressing buttons. I read differently on screens than on paper. I don’t think the devices out there have reconciled that, or the ways people read, from owned books to borrowed to library books. To durability. It’s much less tragic to drop a book. They rumple. But they mostly bounce.

I only really want an eReader when I’m about to go on a trip and I’m between three or four books at a time.

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