Demise of Books?


John Wright


Yesterday I shopped at a large mall, one with about 100 stores. I had a number of things to find and purchase, including a few novels for my entertainment. To my shock and surprise I was unable to find a bookstore, for the last one in that mall had apparently closed some months earlier. No problem, I decided, for I would simply visit the mall pharmacy, go to the magazine and book section and find something suitable. Imagine my surprise when the clerk informed me that they no longer sold books. All of a sudden I found myself in a state of disbelief. How is it possible that something as ubiquitous as a paperback novel couldn’t be found in a large shopping mall?

Note that I was not searching for useful information, merely entertainment. I thought about the subject for a few moments, realizing that a few local stores not in the mall, like Borders®, had closed their doors within the past few years. Then I wondered if our population has abandoned books in favor of other modes of entertainment and/or learning. Sure, all of us have heard about books on tape, the ones that play and recite a story while you drive, or, whatever. How lazy … and what a great way to become inattentive while driving!

To be fair, I did find an excellent selection of books, but in a curious place. By chance I stopped at a very upscale food market, and I was pleased to find a variety of books for both entertainment and learning. Now I have to go out and research what kinds of stores still sell books besides the book store chains. For example, I wonder if stores like Walmart®, who cater primarily to the poor/poorly educated, sell many books. Perhaps I can add Kmart® to that list. Hmmm …

I also thought about the clientele at the chain bookstores that have coffee bars and pastries. I don’t suppose you wonder about the difference between those people, who read, converse and eat/drink at the stores, vs. the uneducated or poorly educated folks who do little or no reading and thus do not patronize those businesses. My guess is that the bookstore chains cater to and receive income from only about 20% of the general population in the USA.

Internet classes, anyone? Maybe we still have to read the same material but via our notebook or desktop personal computers. Then I started thinking about a very fundamental difference between books and video or audio media. My first question is this: Is learning via online media easier or more difficult than learning from a printed book? Second question: Is retention, recall or relearning easier or more difficult when learning from the Internet as opposed to learning from a printed book?

As usual, I have an opinion. Book learning is vastly superior because books are a far more efficient reference once they have been read. That is, the reader develops a kind of mental kinesthetic sense about where to find information and can quickly review pertinent stuff without wading through useless pages. I compare this to data processing, in which direct access was always superior to sequential access.

Does a kinesthetic sense of web pages accompany learning in the online environment? No. Here’s why … every website is different in format, unlike all textbooks that follow a standard format. This means the student will likely learn the unique structure of one site per course or set of related courses … then another, and another, and so on. At the end of the process, like a four-year degree program, the student will have no kinesthetic sense at all about material learned prior to the last year.

I further consider that reiterative steps while learning a subject are best done with a printed book, for the same "kinesthetic" sense applies since the material has already been processed at least once.

This gives rise to a few other thoughts. Perhaps rote memorization learning is not as I describe, as in spelling. But what about more complex subjects that require reflection, analysis and creation of a designed solution? I contend that this type of learning is not superficial (higher mathematics, physics, engineering) and most certainly not a simple matter of rote memorization.

Now we get down to another issue that is even more serious and is independent of media … that of the test for competency. If presumed learning is followed by a multiple choice test, there is much higher probability that the test taker will find the right answer, especially when compared to a bald question with no multiple choice answers. In short, the deck can be stacked in favor of the student by using phrases in a multiple choice test that are found word for word in the original material to be learned.

But is the above exercise learning when multiple choice is used? I believe learning is proven but only when rote memorization was the original goal. Any non-trivial thought process will not be measured re. competence with a multiple-choice test, or with a true/false test. Non-trivial subjects demand creative and complex thinking and as such need both books for original learning and later reference, and, testing procedures that assure the student can start with little and create much of use based on thorough learning of a complex subject or group of subjects.

Maybe I have answered my initial question in this article. Simple knowledge requiring no reflection or creativity can be learned via the Internet. I call that "one layer deep" learning … the kind that one may parrot back without further thinking. Anything of substance, however, makes the Internet a terrible medium for the student. Some of that problem might be overcome with interactive functions with a teacher while online, but it is still less effective and thus less useful than having a complete printed text for reference.

Demise of books? No. Far fewer books? Yes. The issue behind the issue is that most of the population is too dull to learn anything complex in the first place, books or not. Thus, the trivial stuff they might learn that is promoted as education or knowledge can be absorbed via the Internet. Arrgh! I suspect I noticed a change that reflects only a realistic marketing decision, and that makes me ill.