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The Usefulness of Books in The Age of The Web

A stack of programming reference books

There seem to be two camps of developers these days. The first are those who read books—physical books you can put in your lap. The second group are those individuals who consume all of their research material online. I would place myself somewhere in the middle for the very same reason that the second group exists: finding content online is very easy. I’d far rather pick up a good book and read the printed pages than to read a web page or blog article, but like so many others, find doing so impractical in a society where all the facts you’ll ever want are just a click away.

There’s something very satisfying about sitting down with a physical printed book and a cup of coffee and reading about the subject and learning new things. I don’t find that using web resources offers me a comparable experience as I tend to be looking for the solution to a very particular situation. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but here are my views about what the future holds for printed reference material,  as well as trends I have noticed.

Why do I read books?

I can see in my room 14 different reference books on the topic of programming alone. Add that to my collection of recipe books and fiction—that’s a great deal of paper! So why do I find this at all practical or useful when Google holds all the answers?

It’s all about the mind-set of an individual. Call me old-fashioned, but I find that sitting down in the evening with a cup of hot chocolate and a novel is far more relaxing than watching television or playing a FPS. Neither should you call me a technophobe—I’m a computing student at Bournemouth University and worked for Microsoft on my placement year.

The truth is that I find it easier to consume a comprehensive documentation of one author’s thoughts on a broader subject base than a thousand authors’ thoughts on a thousand sub-topics. I prefer the subtle humour and the quality of material that you find only in printed books and not on a blog, for example. This quality is really the main reason for my preference of books. Publishing houses have very high standards and rigorous procedures to ensure the content is accurate and well worded. A post in a forum, for example, simply isn’t subject to these sorts of restrictions.

What about other developers?

I have a lot of developer friends, not only through my studies but also through my work. I’ve found that in general the older ones tended to have more books on their shelves than the younger ones. That said, I don’t know how often those books are picked up.

This raises another interesting point: in what way are these books read, and how often?

For me (and I know for others as well), the most significant factor considered is the time investment necessary. Developers, in particular, want answers quickly since their productivity relies on speedy response to questions. Reading a book cover to cover does take time, but that simply isn’t the way reference books are used. Personally, I read the introduction, maybe the first chapter, and then skip to whatever I’m most interested in; a process that on the surface appears to be the way people use the web—start off on Wikipedia, then read a few other results from Google.

Reference books are not designed to be read like a novel, they’re meant to be picked up and put down whenever and wherever needed. This is what makes a physical copy so good—you’d have a great deal of trouble reading a blog or forum on the London Underground, for example.

The Future…

I’ll stand up and defend the printed book as much as I can, but I must confess the web has some fantastic advantages over books—that is precisely what it was designed for in the first place.

  • First, web sites are generally free to use. If I am looking for answers or wanting to learn something new, I’ll always find free reading material online. Printed books on the other hand are very expensive. Programming references for example, can often be found priced at £40—a significant investment by anyone’s standards.
  • Second, the web is fantastically comprehensive. Regardless of the subject, no matter how obscure, the internet seems to hold the answer. Books, although comprehensive in their own right, are expensive to write and publish and, are therefore often cover a broad subject matter.
  • Third, search engines such as Google or Bing make finding this content effortless. A few carefully selected keywords can bring you hundreds or thousands of relevant results.  A printed book is often a lot harder to get your hands on.

These three factors are, for me, the biggest reasons why I am using the internet more and more. There is a wealth of knowledge online which is simply unparalleled by any bookstore or library. With so many web sites designed for programming Q&A’s, blogs about development and tutorials sites, there is no shortage of resources to suit everyone.

There are many wildly different opinions about what the future holds for the printed word. The extremes: some believe that the internet has made books redundant already, other suggest that we will always have them.

So where does all this leave the printed book? Well, for me, as satisfying as holding a piece of dead tree might be, it simply isn’t as convenient as a web search. I see printed reference books becoming obsolete in 5 to 10 years. However, the quality offered by books over other online sources will surely guarantee their useful life beyond that. The future is quite clearly about eBooks. With the majority of publishers making their content available to providers such as Amazon with their Kindle platform, how long will it be before the printing presses fall silent altogether?

Next time you’re reading a tutorial or help forum online, ask yourself: ‘How does the quality of this compare to a book?’ and ‘Would I prefer to read this from paper?’

Let us know your thoughts on this subject and your predictions for the future of printed books.

 

Further Reading

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