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Vol. 31 No. 3
May-June 2009

Beyond the Book*

by Peter Atkins

Is the book dead? Will the e-book become the norm? Does the e-book have overwhelming advantages or is it, perhaps, not superior in every respect? These are some of the questions that I explore in this article. To help with the discussion, I refer to the conventional paper-based book as a “p-book.”

The p-book, in the form emerging from the printing press rather than the monastery, was responsible for a social revolution when it emerged over 500 years ago, putting knowledge into the hands of the populace and enabling information to spread like wildfire through civilizations. That original form has undergone only cosmetic evolution in the five centuries of its existence. The paper has become whiter and lighter; black and white has given way to full color; and textbooks have acquired pedagogical apparatus that, although breaking up the flow of the text, are invaluable for developing understanding. Worked examples, full-color illustrations, lists of key concepts and equations, and end-of-chapter exercises and problems are really all products of the twentieth century and have made the textbook a central accompaniment of instruction and education. All this apparatus continues to evolve, with special attention still being given by all authors and their publishers to the seemingly intractable problem of developing problem-solving skills and attacking in a variety of ways the challenge of encouraging inductive processes.

Books have also become heavier. They are not all weighted down with new information (molecular biology is an exception) but with pedagogical apparatus. To satisfy the demand for help with problem-solving, the author has to provide worked examples by the score or even by the hundreds. Many students, wanting the instant gratification of good grades, cannot be bothered with the text and merely hunt for a worked example that has at least a vague resemblance to the problem in hand. For them, text is clutter. I am reminded of some genres of pornographic videos that proudly proclaim “No story!” on the boxes, knowing that a storyline gets in the way of the action. We are drifting perhaps toward a textbook that proudly proclaims “No text!” on the cover, promising only the action of worked examples. The loss, of course, is learning.

Books have also become more expensive. Their price is still negligible compared with the overall cost of a college education, but their cost is perceived rather than largely concealed and perhaps forgotten. The rise in expense springs from two sources. One is the absolute cost of producing a highly sophisticated product. Even if the authors in due course discover that they have been working for less than the minimum wage when, after several years of hard labor, a derisory royalty payment finally appears, and they comfort themselves with pride rather than wealth, the cost accruing from the production process remains. Editors, of the flavors commissioning, developing, copy-editing, and production, must be paid, and so must expensive marketing departments, as must the cost of each volume as it rolls off ever-more-expensive presses. Then, because paper and ink are composed of heavy fundamental particles (I shall refer to these baryons again), costs arise from storage and distribution. But there is a more pernicious contribution to cost: the secondhand market.

The secondhand market is largely responsible for the high cost of textbooks, and the high cost of textbooks is largely responsible for the existence of the secondhand market. Because the secondhand market is so well organized (in some countries at least, especially the USA), a publisher can be confident of good, investment-rewarding sales for only the first year or so after launching the book into the marketplace. After this time, so many secondhand copies are in circulation that the publisher and author can only look on as the commodity moves from brain to brain with no financial recognition of their input. Although file-sharing is perceived as illegal in the music industry, book-sharing in the textbook industry (like music DVD- and CD-sharing) is regarded as entirely legitimate and, indeed, the only way of recovering the purchaser’s financial investment and, perhaps, putting the sale price toward the purchase of another book. Thus, a publisher must set the cost of the book high in order to cover costs within a year or so and is under pressure to produce new editions before they are scientifically necessary merely to thwart the secondhand market.

To some extent, the virulence of the secondhand market (which its proponents will argue is not virulence but economic balm for the hard-pressed student) reflects the structure of courses. Where courses last for a single year, a textbook new at the beginning is still acceptable at the end of the year, and intelligent annotations might even be regarded as adding value. Where courses span several years, a book is more heavily used and much lower in value; moreover, a new edition is crossing the horizon. In such cases, a secondhand market is much less intrusive, and books can be cheaper.

That having been said, a p-book is a beautiful thing. It smells good when new, it generally looks good, and it has the virtue of serendipity, for casual browsing can bring the browser to an unexpected viewpoint. The approximate location of knowledge in books can be remembered, or at least half-remembered, for years. Books are life’s companions, and even the sight of a volume on a shelf can remind one of a special moment. But, most important of all, a p-book is “always on.” A book can be opened at a whim and immediately offers its contents to its reader. Books can be read in the brightest sunlight, on the balmiest beach, at almost any angle, in even the most bizarre bodily posture, for hours on end, even while one’s airplane is landing and taking off.

The Ascendancy of the E-Book
Nevertheless, the equivalent of a mammal is starting to nibble at the feet of the dinosaur and is poised to take over the world. An e-book is a nimble thing, and, once its current deficiencies have been eliminated, it is inevitable that it will dominate the world. While the p-book will not become extinct, it will be very much in second place and perhaps relegated to collectors rather than users, perhaps returning to the monastery from whence it sprang. As always in the e-world, we have to distinguish the e-book itself, the information content, the software, from the device itself, the hardware, the “e-reader.”

. . . the equivalent of a mammal is starting to nibble at the feet of the dinosaur and is poised to take over the world.

The principal positive attribute of the hardware aspect of the e-book is its ability to put the world in one’s hand. Even if one disregards the leisure aspects of e-books and focuses only on the pedagogical aspects (as I do mostly in the following paragraphs), the convenience of having all one’s textbooks available, together with resources of data, in a single unit is hugely attractive. Because convergence is inevitable, packed into the ideal e-reader will be manipulative software that is immediately on hand to develop whatever the e-book itself requires.

The problems with current versions of e-readers diminish their acceptability but will vanish with time and development. We need color screens: The monochrome electronic ink offerings currently available are acceptable for e-novels, where only the words matter, but are wholly unacceptable for textbooks and will be seen as a regression to the monochrome nineteenth century. Battery life needs to be effectively infinite so the reading experience is not curtailed by extraneous cause.

Most important of all, and probably most difficult to achieve, is the re-creation of that most wonderful aspect of p-books that I allude to earlier, the opportunity for serendipitous discovery. Browsing freedom would be recreated if, instead of one screen with its Cyclops eye, an e-reader had hundreds of double-sided screens, perhaps all hinged on the left, so the reader could flip through as though using a real p-book. It is an interesting question: How many pagelike e-screens would it take to recreate the sense of using a p-book? Would it take a hundred, or could it be accomplished with two? The electronics of an e-reader also need to be shrouded in some way so it is possible to use them at all times on an aircraft, for otherwise one would have to pass away the time by reading the safety card in the seat pocket. The ideal e-reader also needs to have wireless connectivity built in so one can download e-books on the move and thus not only have the convenience of accessibility but also enhance the browsing experience.

The principal advantage of the e-book itself, the software, is its potential for interactivity. This is the heart of the e-book revolution, with—like all revolutions—losses and gains. Interaction takes a variety of forms. At its simplest, it provides the opportunity for exploring the consequences of changing parameters in graphs (features that in another context I call “Living Graphs”) and calculations. This type of interaction could be a seriously useful pedagogical tool, exploring how temperature affects a property or a composition, how changing dimensions of a container, masses of atoms, force constants, and so on, almost without end.

There is another simple kind of interactivity that we chemists (as well as our macroscopic cousins, the architects) will welcome, which is the opportunity to view illustrations, especially molecular and crystal structures, from different viewpoints. Stereoscopic and perhaps holographic images will add to the e-experience. The color-blind will perhaps be able to select a more appropriate palette of colors. Related to this type of visual enhancement is the capacity to show animations of appropriate concepts.

Then there is a deeper kind of interactivity, that of successive expositional depth. Confronted by a puzzling point, either verbal or mathematical, there would be a real advantage to being able to open up a new, more detailed level of explanation, with more mathematical steps displayed, with more commentary, and so on. One could turn this type of interactivity on its head and perhaps select an overall level of exposition for an entire text, and then progressively deepen it as one became intellectually more secure. Related to this feature is the potential opportunity to link to other texts carried in one’s reader or out there on the web.

The E-Book’s Shortcomings
Not everything, though, in the e-book garden is rosy. One advantage of a p-book is its intellectual rigor: It starts on page one, and the author leads the reader through an intellectual development, sometimes leaving tough precipices to negotiate. There are two points here. One is the simple but psychologically comforting fact that with the linear exposition characteristic of a p-book, one knows how far one has gotten and how far one has to go simply by glancing at how much paper is on the left and how much remains on the right. An e-book, other than simple linear novels, does not have the same immediacy: Because an e-book can potentially be explored nonlinearly by pursuing links that might be presented, there is no way of telling how much farther there is to go. An ideal e-book would have some kind of meter to display the volume of material covered and how much remained to give heart to the despairing or fatigued student. The second point is that intellectual struggle can be an excellent way of learning: It may turn out that all the easing of the learning experience that e-books strive toward actually diminishes the capacity of the student to understand deep down. Moreover, the temptation to slip away into byways when confronted by a hill to struggle over could diminish the acquisition of intellectual rigor.

There is another, related point. A novel stimulates the imagination: One has to invent one’s own image of the characters and their environment. Illustrated novels, movies, and videos are all very well, but they leave the imagination unstimulated. Could it be that the provision of too much visual help in an e-book would undermine the imaginative capacity of students? Might it be better to force them to develop their own images rather than to lie back and let another’s images wash over them? Perhaps the imaginative opportunities that e-books will unleash would be undermined by their failure to stimulate the imaginative enterprise that is so vital to science.

Another feature will, I suspect, be viewed with concern. I have mentioned already factors that contribute to the cost of p-books. By stripping away the baryons and leaving only electrons as the carriers of information, the problems of weight, storage, and distribution are overcome at a stroke. It would be naïve to expect a reduction in cost, however, because all the bells and whistles that must be developed incur huge costs, and the sales base does not match that characteristic of computer games. However, that other contribution to cost, the secondhand market, could be thwarted, for e-books could be time limited and turned off after a year to be made not sharable with other users. I would greatly regret my own library gradually disappearing unless I renewed a subscription to maintain the lives of books that one day I might find an opportunity to use again, but that might be the price to pay for the future. A minor point is that almost certainly “editions” will disappear, and, like the software model, publishers will release “versions” instead, with incremental update patches instead of corrected reprints.

Let me say that the e-book revolution—for it will be one—has scarcely started. We need seriously improved e-readers before an e-book can become a comfortable, colorful, rewarding, convenient device. We should expect to be drawn in by interactivity but not always to be developed intellectually. We need imaginative contributions from authors; indeed, e-books by single authors might not be feasible, as so many talents must be brought to bear. We should expect the convenience of being able to transport whole libraries in our pocket but not necessarily cheapness. We should, in a word, expect the future.

Peter Atkins <[email protected]> was an Oxford professor of chemistry and fellow of Lincoln College until his retirement in 2007. He has written more than 60 books, the best-known of which is Physical Chemistry, which will soon be published in its ninth edition. His other major textbooks include Inorganic Chemistry, Molecular Quantum Mechanics, Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences, and Elements of Physical Chemistry. Until 2005, he chaired the IUPAC Committee on Chemistry Education.

* This article is based on a lecture given by the author at the International Conference on Chemical Education-20 in Mauritius in August 2008.

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