The book vs. the app — a tired, boring debate

by David Alm on April 24, 2012

I’ve come around. No longer do I wish to disparage apps and technology in favor of books and reading by kerosene. To be fair, I’ve never done the latter, but I do own a lot of books and I don’t plan on getting rid of them. One thing I don’t own, still, is an iPad (or a Kindle, a Nook, or a phone large enough to read books on).

But if others want to read their books and magazines on a small, glowing device, who am I to say they shouldn’t? Nevertheless, the debate wears on. Tediously, ploddingly, pointlessly.

This week, the British television personality and journalist Dan Snow, born in 1978, added to that debate in a piece for the Telegraph, titled, “I hate to say this, but apps do beat books.”

A truly literary title. Intriguing, subtle, ripe for interpretation. (Or not.)

His arguments are as simplistic as his headline. He concludes that apps allow for a more immersive experience, allowing the “reader” to click through and delve as deeply into an aspect of a “story” or field of study as he likes, and skip over the parts he finds less interesting. Apparently, books, with their dogmatic structure — all those “pages” and “chapters” — don’t allow the same control.

And then there’s his writing. In the second sentence — the second sentence! — Snow writes that he’s fallen “head over heals for apps” (italics mine). As my father pointed out to me in an email, “Books are permanent. They’re there forever. You can’t just update the file server.”

But whatever. Apps are here to stay. E-readers are becoming the norm. And I’m done fighting it.

So, to Dan Snow I offer my final rebuttal: Apps are not better than books, and books are not, necessarily, better than apps. To say otherwise is like calling the Internet “better” than the library. It’s not; it’s just newer. Civilization got pretty damn far along with those antiquated, backwards things that you’ve denounced in favor of your iPad.

Still, maybe you’re right, that apps do provide a unique learning experience, one those dumb old reams of paper, bound together with glue and string and filled with nothing but words, can’t match. But seriously, what’s the point in saying they’re “better”? Besides, I can tell you one “app” that will never be available for the iPad, Kindle, or Nook: Losing track of time in the stacks of a library, which you entered to get a particular book only to find yourself, hours later, reading a different one — and finding it fascinating.

Jeff McMahon April 24, 2012 at 8:22 pm

“I’ve come around.”

We’ll miss having a Luddite blog anchor.

p.s. I bet apps beat books at moving time.

David Alm April 24, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Oh, I’m still a Luddite. And I’ve been known to go back on resolutions before (I’ve resolved to “quit” running marathons about 15 times…)

Diana Alm April 25, 2012 at 9:08 am

When do you think he will update his misspelling of “heels”? After all, it’s on the Interrnet and can easily be changed — something you can’t do in a book once it’s been published.

David Alm April 26, 2012 at 7:22 am

But that’s the point. If it were written on paper and published, he’d have no choice but to live with his mistake. The Internet allows writers to be lazy, and that could potentially lead to increasingly less articulate, less thoughtful writing over the years to come. It’s already happening.

Diana Alm April 26, 2012 at 8:49 am

You make a good point.

Angela Argentati May 1, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Do you think Snow suffers from appsentmindedness: a condition afflicting the young in even greater numbers than the old?

Jeff McMahon May 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm

^ Like

Andie May 20, 2012 at 10:54 am

Hello David. I did smile when I read this. You are quite right – the argument is really pointless. Each has something in its favour, something to recommend it (apologies for the English spelling but I am English!). I love reading books, turning the pages, feeling the texture, ruining them with red wine rings (yes, I’m a heathen) and getting them slightly damp in the bath. At the same time, I write websites, hyperlink to different parts of those sites and allow people to navigate them in their own ways. And I love my apps – my hieroglyph dictionary and travel companions. I’m not much into TV but sometimes documentaries are a useful way of bridging between academics and the public. The problem with Snow’s neatly topped and tailed article is less what he says than what he has actually produced. I’ve had a look at his app and it is a confusion of different ways of communicating, a patchwork of facts and images, none of it held together with a coherent narrative, little of it helping the reader to understand what those facts and images mean when put into context. Perhaps that was the idea – the sense that a war is a patchwork affair, and that it doesn’t need an underlying narrative to make it matter. But to me, the sense of chaos undermines the value of the offering in a way that only a very bad book or article would parallel. The point of books is that they deliver a specific message and organize data to that end – you may agree or disagree with the message in the narrative, but it is, hopefully, explicit. Apps have a value but the temptation to use lovely technology encourages a certain amount of self indulgence, which is not necessarily helpful to the end user. Sorry to go on and on! Best Andie.

David Alm May 22, 2012 at 7:36 am

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Andie. Never apologize for engaging on this blog!

I agree with you entirely, on all your points. The thing that I worry about is generational differences. We might recognize the relative merits of apps vs. regular books in certain contexts and for certain uses, but we also recognize the value of a good old fashioned book, and we can choose accordingly. Younger people make no such distinction, much of the time. They simply choose the app, because that’s what they know. We’re no different, though. No one my age owns an encyclopedia, and how many hundreds of years have passed since anyone actually read from a scroll?

Andie May 25, 2012 at 3:55 pm

I like a lot of the changes that the Internet has brought. I would, quite frankly, be lost without it. And I think that there are huge opportunities for education to grasp some of the technologies and really make use of them to engage younger students. I remember being bored to tears by most of my schooling, but there are now great ways of bringing both past and present to fabulous life – but any new way of introducing material still needs a structure and a narrative to give it meaning and value. Did you ever go on days to museums as a young kid? I remember the fun of running around but I’m sure that I learned almost nothing. I see the same with the ghastly gangs of children running around the British Museum like lunatics on a regular basis. They have a lovely time, but they don’t seem to be learning much. Perhaps applications that sit on computers, designed specifically for educational purposes, can bridge that gap if properly developed. That’s a bit out of the range of Dan Snow though!

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