When Print Trumps Digital

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Kevin Kelly Book

A sample spread from Kevin Kelly’s A Catalog of Possibilities

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Most people who know me know that I’m a bit gadget crazy. But what guy do you know who isn’t? One of my daily “must reads” online is Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools website, which reviews items that “really work.” As the site notes: “A cool tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true.” And I’m not the only fan in the book business: back in 2007 when Barnes & Noble’s lead fiction buyer Sessalee Hensley posted her review of a peanut butter stirrer on Cool Tools, it was noted by Gawker. Weird, huh?

A Catalog of PossibilitiesKelly is far from a luddite. The former editor of Wired magazine, his previous book, What Technology Wants, examined the “technium” — the era of always-on, interconnected technology in which we now live. In that book, he recommended taking time to examine the role of these technological tools play in controlling our lives, and to turn when appropriate, back to the authentic tools of our forebears — ones that we ourselves can control.

So it came time to publish his “best of” collection of Cool Tools reviews, A Catalog of Possibilities, its no surprise that he opted for print. And unlike his previous book Cool Tools in the Kitchen, which he co-wrote and published with O’Reilly, this time he’s going out on his own. Why? He explains:

“I could do this on the web, but when I thought of the best way to highlight the ultimate tool collection, I immediately thought of a paper book. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.

“But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. These oversized Catalogs were curated collections of the best tools presented on double-wide spreads of cheap paper, in great big fat books. As on this blog, the brief, rave reviews were recommended by readers and familiar editors. The range of reviews were refreshingly wide and dense, crammed 5 or 6 per page. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet.

“So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book.”

And what’s more, it ain’t cheap: it sells for $40 through Amazon. That is real money.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.