Thursday, April 24, 2014

Print ... still not dead

Way back in the late sixties and early seventies, a bunch of people in Northern California put out The Whole Earth Catalog.  Several of them, actually.  There were one or two lying around the house when I was growing up, and I would often browse through them.  I can't say I remember any particular content, but I do remember the vibrantly busy layout and, of course, the iconic photos of the Earth on the cover, including William Anders' famous shot of the Earth from the surface of the moon on this edition.

Print catalogs have a long and influential history.  The Sears Catalog, for example, had a huge influence on the rural United States in the early 20th century, offering as it did everything from pins and nails to tools to toys and games, clothing, fishing and hunting equipment, bicycles, automobiles and even a house to put it all in.  As I understand it, the arrival of the latest Sears Catalog in the mail was a noteworthy event in many communities.

In these days of the web, of course, there's little need for a mail order catalog.  A good commercial web site is more up to date, a good deal easier to search and not so bad to idly browse.  Some will not only show you detailed pictures of the goods, but let you customize and see the results.  Why kill trees to send something static that will be obsolete by the time it arrives?

And yet ...

Kevin Kelly, one of the original editors of The Whole Earth Catalog, has been running or co-editing the site Cool Tools since its origins as a mailing list in 2000.  It's now settled into a blogish form, but last year Kelly decided to collect the best bits from the site and publish them, as a book.  In print.  In 472 pages of print, to be exact.

There's at least one webby twist, though:  Each item has a QR code which you can scan with your smartphone to get a link to the seller's site.  That makes perfect sense, really.  While the contents of the sites may change, the sites themselves will be much more stable (particularly if the book does a good job of driving business to them).

It's an interesting hybrid.  A physical book that you can leaf through will provide a nice overview -- nicer than scrolling through screen after screen, unless your screen is pretty big -- and you still have the links.  Granted, the links are a bit more cumbersome to chase, but if you're mostly browsing and only occasionally visiting the linked sites, that's probably not too bad.

Even if it just ends up being an interesting conversation piece, Cool Tools is only the latest in a line of blogs and other web sites spinning off books.  Randall Munroe of xkcd fame, for example, is publishing his What If series in book form.  Just to emphasize how not-real-time an enterprise book publishing is, even with today's technology, the book won't actually be available until September.

It's one thing if publishers are still putting out genre fiction paperbacks or coffee table photo books.  The paperback as a tradition will probably be around for a while yet, and you don't have to buy a fancy reader to enjoy it.  The coffee table book is the canonical example of something that print can still deliver better.

But a catalog and a web comic would seem to be two of the least print-friendly formats that could feasibly be printed.  And yet they are.  I have no idea why this should be, but I don't mind.