Reading design books

September 12th, 2012

Khoi Vinh on the limited edition of Herb Lubalin monograph from Unit Editions in his “Are Design Books Meant to be Read“:

Inside, pure gorgeousness awaits. Page after page of exquisite photographs of original Lubalin works to pore over, extensively captioned by Shaughnessy. There’s also a copious biography of Lubalin’s life and career, roughly seventy-five pages of well-illustrated narrative and analysis that I’m genuinely interested in reading.

But, I’ll probably never read it. The book weighs something like five pounds or more, so I’ll never carry it with me, and reading on the go is how I do the vast majority of my reading. If I’m honest with myself too, the same goes for the other books I’ve bought from Unit Editions — they all sit on my shelf, basically unread and very rarely touched.

“Never” is a strong word. Having said that, I probably am never going to buy another printed copy of a fiction novel. I don’t know for how long I’ll have access to my current collection of digital books. It would seem that digital bookshops have been with us forever, but really IBM is the only computer company that survived more than two human generations. How likely is it that the current digital media hubs (say, Amazon, Apple, Google, B&N, Netflix) will be with us when I’m retired?

A physical book perishes. It gathers dust, the paper crumbles, bugs eat it, water warps it and fire destroys it completely. A digital book perishes differently. Somewhere out “in the cloud” there is some database that stores pairs of bookIduserId associations. That database is probably backed up and replicated like crazy. But bugs happen. And companies disappear. If the customers are lucky, they’ll be able to extract their data before the cloud services are no longer available. Formats get deprecated, and custom software emulators / hardware that can display data in old formats get more expensive. We don’t see, because it happened so damn recently, and we just didn’t yet have a chance to see one of the behemoths implode.

Library of Alexandria has seen its 40,000 books perished in fire, never to be passed on to future generations. Us. Imagine a solar flare so powerful that it knocks off all electronic equipment on Earth. Ironically, printed copies would be the way to restore the lost digital copies. For those books that had physical copies to begin with.

And some books are best consumed in their physical form. The texture of the hard cover. The smell of the paper. Color illustrations fading away and losing some of the pigment to the opposite page. A medium that does not have a notification bar, or a mobile connection. A medium that makes it a mental effort to remember the last page you read. A medium that does not have word highlight or search, and requires a concerted effort to flip back to find and re-read that passage that you particularly liked. A medium that does not allow to quickly share it on your favorite social network with a couple of clicks.

Design books that are meant to be read. Words, sentences, stories. Beautifully formatted and perfectly suited to be read in a printed book. Still.