Do Books Matter Less?

Book TreasureThe pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus was an early observer of the ever occurring change in our universe.  About the same time in the 5th Century BC, Parmenides pondered the notion of permanence, what we could presume in nature to be essential.  Between the two of them, we have a thesis and antithesis that have yet to reveal a synthesis beyond argument some 2500 years later.  We see change all around us in almost unfathomable complexity, while we wonder what we can hold onto as firm.  For me, it’s a good problem to have, as contemplation of the unsettled forces us to chew harder and argue better.

Then there are books.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece with the header “Books That Are Never Done Being Written,” Nicholas Carr contemplates the far-ranging impact of digital distribution on long-established but fluid notions of traditional publishing:

An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.

The realization that books are no more permanent than this year’s understanding of medical treatment is hardly shocking.  The very paradigm of printing on paper and binding a work has throughout its history adopted the notion of editions and revisions.  Where would the school textbook industry be without an excuse to update a classroom volume rather than allow you to feel comfortable buying a dog-eared half price two-year old version?  If we only needed one unabridged edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, think of how many academic preface summaries we would have been denied annotating discovered corrections in the core text.

Yet in the worlds of literature and even political theory, we do seem to maintain an expectation that the version we read of Charles Dickens or John Stuart Mill is largely the same as the draft the author called final.  “A Tale of Two Cities” even when presented in its initial serialization was eventually finished, as was the essay “On Liberty,” and when we buy a copy of one of these today either in paperback or download, we do believe in the authenticity of replication representing if not a fully steady state, a pretty firm slice of life.  That is helpful not only in getting us all on the same page for discussion and critique, it offers us grounding in history and social evolution, the ceaseless churn emerging from deliberately placed bricks in the wall.

I have a hard time thinking today is much different, and no matter the short attention span theater that victimizes so much of our patience, my sense is our books have never been more important — no matter the brevity of their life-cycle, no matter their imposed truncation or expansion, no matter their delivery format or storage means on wood shelf or cloud server.  Our books will change as they must, but their timeliness and meditation as collective might be the primary permanence we retain, even if it is more spiritual and metaphorical than natural or physical.  The means of delivering the book does not define the book, it is largely irrelevant, itself a timely convenience worthy of disruption.  The material of delivery is subordinated to the material of substance, it is the content that matters, not the media.  The Platonic form is the ideal, and that cannot be taken from us by technology.

However we acknowledge its consumption mechanism, the book as ideal is a bridge among scattered coordinates.  We learn to read an organized set of drawn thoughts to see what is meant by change, and those who have the gift and discipline to construct a book add to the global library of permanence by carrying the torch that challenges all that came before.  Historic observation is clear and consistent: the buildings decay, the land can be conquered and utilized anew after wars and governments are gone, but the ideas underlying arts remain for examination.  The composed book is the codification of the idea however it is presented, that does not change.

My amazing wife, who is also an amazing teacher, enters her classroom on the first day with a simple statement:

“Our books are our treasures.”

Her specialty is English as a Second Language, and whether she is teaching adults or children, this mantra is always the same.  Books are precious.  If you look around our house, you might see why this is our chorus.  Books are everywhere.  That is what we want to be surrounded by.  We also have a Kindle and an iPad.  They are filled with books as well.

Another recent story in the Wall Street Journal discussed how the price of e-books was sometimes dropping below the price of “real” books which I guess means paper books, but to me, one is no less real than the other.  The broader question remaining is whether the great majority of people should still find the time for long-form written expression in a world cluttered with half-baked tidbit social media posts like this one.  The answer has to be yes, because if we are going to allow character count to trump in-depth inquiry, we condemn our more severe concerns to being adequately addressed by less than substantial narrative.  Our pace of change is only becoming more frantic, and the hope for some form of understandable permanence all the more desirable in addressing unending anxieties.  Committed writing and reading gets us a good deal of the way there, because the acts of reading and writing might be one of the few forms of permanence we can share.

I say this as someone who just spent the better part of a year writing my first book, which is now in first draft and undergoing edit.  I haven’t talked much about the book, and won’t until we get closer to publication, but let me just say that whether anyone reads it or it sells a single copy, it will remain one of my proudest achievements.  Right now it is a long book.  It will get shorter to accommodate marketing concerns, but hopefully it will still be a substantial book.  I couldn’t have said all I needed to say in a blog post or I would have.  Believe me, I would have!

In our world of constant and increasing hyper flux, books can be thought of as a noble but flawed exercise in establishing some sense of the enduring.  Now that digital publishing allows current authors easy access to further disturbing permanence, any foothold in establishing the concrete may remain even more illusive, but the stepping-stones of thought that bridge us from there to here can certainly maintain significance if we view thought as continuum, a timeline.  In that regard, as a roadmap or even a set of breadcrumbs, books for me have never been more relevant, nor the mission of authors any less permanent.  Some books are good and some are bad, some certainly more ephemeral than others, but the connectivity of books is ongoing.  Apps or facings, that is as it should be, as long as I can read.

Things That Work, Things That Rot

I think I know why Apple is one of the most valuable companies in the world, if not the most valuable. Simply stated, the company’s products are elegant, and they work. They are intuitive, and they work. They are designed with vision, and they work. Most of all, they work.

Am I willing to pay a premium for that? You bet. Are a lot of other people? How do you think they amassed more cash than our Federal Government (which, incidentally, has proven of late that it does not work). Yes, people will pay a premium for elegant, intuitive, well-designed, visionary products that work. To the victor go the spoils. We get tremendously useful products. Apple gets our cash. We may grumble about the constant upgrade cycles, but we shouldn’t often grumble about the value proposition, We get what we pay for, and in my mind, it’s worth it.

My experience earlier this year buying my first iPad could not have been more pleasant. I began my research polling friends on my Facebook page for feedback on what configuration to buy, and not only got great information, but rave endorsements for the iPad2 itself. I then went to the local Apple Store and despite the fact that they were sold out of iPads, a very well-trained and nice salesperson spent a great deal of time with me going over my options, then suggested I order my iPad online (with free shipping and engraving) to get it sooner. Other customers in the store were also Apple evangelists and offered me lots of friendly tips on apps I might like. I went home, ordered it on a Monday afternoon, had it on Friday morning, and used it all that weekend without any need of a manual or user guide. To take this all the way home, on a recent business trip some of the functionality froze, but when I searched my issue on Google, there was plenty of user feedback that accurately told me how to “reboot” the iPad and unfreeze the grayed-out state I encountered. The fix from problem to resolution with community help took six minutes.

LoveCustomersCompare and contrast this experience with my recent encounter with my telecom company. Early last week, my broadband connection to the internet vaporized—gone, kaput, no warning, no connectivity—in the midst of this week’s heavy stock market trading, which made the timing even more problematic. With sweat inducing trepidation, I called the 800 service number, and after five minutes of voice assisted prompts, I got a very polite person on the phone. This person thanked me for my business, assured me I was appreciated, took my phone number in case we got disconnected, then began to ask me to plug and unplug things which I told him I had already done. Thirty seconds later he accidentally cut off the call. He never called back.

I dialed the 800 number again, went through the voice mail prompts, got another polite human being ten minutes later. This person apologized for the first person cutting me off. Then after some give and take and checking with her supervisor several times while she put me on hold, she communicated to me more than thirty minutes later that my “old” DSL modem, which they had sent me in 2005, was incompatible with a change they had made in their network “at the central station” (sadly, my neighborhood is largely stuck with ancient DSL technology, but that’s another grating story). She then congratulated me on my eligibility for a new and improved free modem upgrade, which she would order for me as soon as her supervisor approved it. I had to go to a meeting, and indeed, 45 minutes later she called and left me three voice mails to congratulate me again that the free modem had been approved and would arrive in 24 hours. It did.

Unfortunately when I connected the new modem, it did not connect to the internet, so I called the 800 number again. After the voice prompts I got another exceptionally polite employee on the line, and this person apologized for the fact that the new modem did not work, but told me a ticket was open and would be resolved by Friday. It was Wednesday. I needed to be online. The nice person said he would escalate the issue, but that a configuration change had to be made at the central station according to the notes in the file.

I lived without hard-line internet through Thursday, saved by my iPad which of course worked fine. On Friday morning I still had no internet, so I called the 800 number again, went through the voice prompts and got another wonderfully polite person who apologized again, but told me the switch at the central station had not been adjusted because of a work stoppage, asking me if I had heard or read about this. I said I had, but I wondered why they would have made a network configuration change earlier in the week, not told me, and sent me a free modem that needed to be configured at the central station when there was no one available to do that. The wonderfully polite person agreed with me that this was wrong, and said I should have been called before the change was made originally to advise me a new modem was coming before they had sent it. I asked if all this was supposed to happen without me calling and he said yes, absolutely, then apologized again for the inconvenience.

I asked when I would have my internet connection again, and he said he hoped it would be by Monday, if someone was available to make the change at the central station during business hours, since they did not work weekends, if they were working at all. I offered some less than polite words about the impact this was having on my ability to conduct business in a turbulent equities market, and suffice it to say, with a certain number of carefully worded phrases (including a promise to write this blog entry), my connectivity was restored about four hours later.

I suppose that’s one way to take a job to completion.

I write this not specifically as a celebration of Apple and an indictment of my telecom company. I offer it instead as a lesson in excellence and the loyalty a true commitment to customers will garner. What Apple does should be the norm, not the exception, but because it is the exception, they enjoy almost unreal loyalty from their customers. I believe most if not all businesses once aspired to such a level of passion, but today, not so much. Mediocrity seems to be good enough for a lot of businesses, and as customers, we are just supposed to grin and bear it. That’s one of the true costs of everyday low prices. Quality can become a coin toss.

Perhaps it is time to put a stake in the ground and demand better products and services in every capacity we consume. With all this choice, customers are supposed to be Job #1. But are we really? If we have been reduced to being consumers rather than customers, than at the very least, let us consume well—without frustration, without anger, with reasonable expectations of the value chain. I have a better idea: let’s not be consumers, let’s be customers and expect to be treated that way, with respect, forcing healthy market competition for our loyalty. We pay a lot for this stuff, honestly, we do. Quality should be a given.

Not much to ask, products and services that work—and that work well, all the time.

Then again, perhaps I might share with you another example of trying to replace a battery for a mobile device from a branded store where the device remains on sale but the batteries not so much. Nah, I’ll spare you, just scroll up and do a search and replace.