Swing Both Ways: Why Print Bibliophiles Should Stop Hating On E-books

My Spanish barista friends must have thought I was mad when shortly after sitting down to an afternoon Earl Grey, I frantically asked in broken Spanish if they could watch my heavy bag while I ran back to the metro station for Gertrude Stein. I was taking "American Writers in Paris" while studying English literature in Madrid (yeah, process that for a moment), and I'd been reading a copy of "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" I stole from a library in Texas. I'd left it on the subway and panicked when I realized this.

Fortunately, the woman at the ticket counter understood my description of a small red book and produced it with a smile that said "you might be crazy, please leave now."

Today, this little hardback sits on my shelf, and every time I look at it, I remember this experience and smile. No other book has the same backstory. Had I been carrying an e-reader, I probably wouldn't have gotten it back and I wouldn't attach this memory to any particular text.


Embracing the Dark Side

Cut to last fall, when I purchased my first e-reader. It was a momentous occasion. Just a mere three years ago, I was fiercely devoted to print (hell, I worked at a newspaper). And to this day, when I walk into a good bookstore, I find myself needing to pee from excitement. But I've grown to love this digital format... and grown annoyed with the idea that I'm cheating on my other books.

The notion that e-books are inferior to "real" books is a misconstrued debate, and the fighting has to stop. It's about as productive as arguing over whether listening to an audio book "counts" as reading a book. Seriously? The "real thing" when it comes to storytelling goes further back than Gutenberg's press—all the way to oral storytelling traditions. So maybe audiobooks are really more authentic choices.

Stories are an experience. The format of that experience is not what makes the content worth engaging.


Why E-books Are My Friends

I chose my first e-books deliberately; I read Content Strategy for Mobile by Karen McGrane. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to try. Here's why I ended up loving the e-book experience more than I ever anticipated:

  • Feedback. When I downloaded my first e-books, I also started using ReadMill. It is an almost surreal experience to be able to tweet comments on specific selections not only to my friends but to the actual author as well. She may not reply back, but I can give immediate feedback on how I'm receiving her work (although I've engaged in conversations with two authors via Twitter so far).
  • Community. As much as I love book clubs (and don't intend to give them up), it's also fantastic to immediately see how people I will never meet IRL respond to something I've reacted to. My thoughts can be immediately influenced by others if I choose and thus have the chance to mature faster. I hope to see more web content structured this way in the future. In fact, I'd argue that reader feedback methods on most blog is disappointingly behind the curve (but that's another blog post).
  • Portability. I still have many of my college textbooks that I can't bring myself to discard whenever moving time rolls around. It's both a matter of financial and intellectual investment. I may never sit down to re-read the whole of Plato's work or my massive collection of women's poetry—but I do return to sections of these texts now and then, and my notes remind me of where my mind was years ago. I don't want to discard these experiences—which is where e-books come in as a joy for those who feel connected to our texts and prefer living as lightweight as possible. (Interestingly enough, there's also an argument that just the opposite fuels e-book popularity—that e-books are the new mass market paperback.)
  • Accessibility. Despite the abundance of trolling and otherwise disappointing human behavior, the potential this medium holds is mind blowing. As a civilization, it's startling how quickly we've moved from the preciousness of printed materials to an information free-for-all. What this means for education in places with limited opportunities is even more inspiring to me.


Stop Quibbling, Start Imagining

The long of the short of this bookish debate is that e-books can do things and have advantages that printed books cannot and do not. But the reverse is true as well.

Each format has its place, and I want to see what each can accomplish that the other cannot. For example, if you're going to spend the money to print something, make it different than what could be conveyed in a digital format.

I'm currently reading Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs, which has been bound in a lovely soft-touch coating that actually makes me pick up the book more often. That, my friends, is the power of print—and it's not being exercised often enough.


Swing Both Ways. Seriously.

But here's the real secret: you don't have to choose one or the other. You can love both (and most people are not exclusive with their book choices).

I have by no stretch of the imagination abandoned print (more than a dozen boxes of books my Dad has moved more than once is a testament to that). I stand in old bookstores and just breathe in the stories (ones printed on pages and ones left there by their former owners)—but I also spend my day writing content for the web. I have 6 pen pals I handwrite letters to every month—but I send email every hour.

Print and digital content are not at war. They are allies in the greater battle against ignorance.

What's in a Name? (And Why I Hate the Word "Content")

I'm feeling angsty lately, and it's not just because of my first ever Twitter debate. I am a woman of words, but I haven't found the right words for what I do with content. I've been reading Mike Monteiro's Design is a Job (one of very few books I've given five stars) and found myself feeling out of place but in the best kind of ways.

(Okay the best kind of ways really happen in Austin, where you see things like a dude walking his dog on a unicycle. Seriously, I can't make this shit up. Moving on though.)

I'm going to bring you back to your SAT days with this analogy, inspired by a man who likes Tastykakes more than your average California resident:

Designer : Artist :: BLANK : Writer

When I say "writer," I'm talking about creative writers—you know, the kind who sit around drinking absinthe and scribbling out poetry... and hanging out with painters. These are pure artists; they create art for its own sake, not deliberately intending for it to fulfill a practical purpose.

Design (once called "commercial art" long, long ago in a land far away) take elements of art and make it work for its money. Good design can delight and challenge in the same ways good art does—but it starts with an agenda. I'd argue that art with an agenda is walking the line of design.

Writing a novel with an agenda, on the other hand, is a fast way to get bitch slapped by an editor. Creative writing that trends toward intentional messaging may be a sin, but the upside is that "commercial writing" that trends toward the artistic (think storytelling rather than fact-spewing) is desirable.

That's good news for me because personally, I prefer to create things with a purpose and I prefer to do it in a way that people actually enjoy. I love art and literature, but what I want to spend my time making is something with a goal in mind. That's just the way I roll. Unfortunately, my Dad is still telling me I need to write the next Harry Potter novel to make it big with my word skillz.

So going back to my lovely analogy. I'm the BLANK and there's good reason why I'm struggling to fill it in. The problem with the label "content strategist" is that it implies strategy only, not execution. Something like "copywriter" implies the opposite (production without high-level architecture). I do both. I love both.

I'm more than a content cow, but less than a strategic saint.

In his book, Monteiro uses the phrase "information designer" (he rails against the label "information architect") which I like better than "content strategist" because anyone who understand what real design is understands that strategic thought drives what ultimately "looks pretty." I'm not a super big fan of "information," however, because it implies pure fact and structure without the seriously important nuance of tone and feelings in addition to downright useful information.

Then again, here's another confession: I don't like the word "content."

I was so relieved at BarCamp Philly this year when one of the speakers, David Dylan Thomas, said as much during a session. My beef with the word is that it's a catch-all and I almost always prefer to be specific with my word choices. (Related: I also hate the word "specialist" for the same reason.) But, as he pointed out, it seems to be a necessary evil for now.

So if I need to stick with "content" to avoid pigeonholing myself and the word "designer" accomplishes what I intend from the strategy-execution combo perspective, should I call myself a "content designer"? Somehow it doesn't feel quite right. It feels like I should know how to use Photoshop better.

I really want to know what other people think. If you're like me, what do you call yourself and are you satisfied with that label? If you're a designer, how do you feel about me calling myself a designer of words? I know what I can do matters more than what I'm called, but as a lover of words, I want to find the right ones to convey my meaning!