July 26, 2016

Tuesday's First Chapter, First Paragraph

Each Tuesday, Diane at Bibliophile By the Sea shares the first part of a book that she is reading or thinking about reading. This week I'm sharing a portion from my husband's new book! I didn't want to read the book until it was in its final version, so it wasn't until last week that I eagerly started reading Rod's book. I quickly became engrossed and found myself staying up far too late, telling myself, "Just one more page!" I can't remember the last time I've read such an intelligent and interesting work of nonfiction. 

by Rod Scher

Publisher's Blurb:

Leveling the Playing Field explores the technologies that "trickle down" to the rest of us, innovations that were once the domain of the wealthy and powerful--and which therefore tended to make them even more wealthy and powerful. Now, though, these technologies--from books to computers to 3D printing and beyond--have become part of a common toolkit, one accessible to almost anyone, or at least to many more than had heretofore had access. This is what happens with most technologies: They begin in the hands of the few, and they end up in the hands of the many. Along the way, they sometimes transform the world.

Since we all love books, whether in print, audio or digital formats, while not the first chapter or first paragraph, I thought you'd enjoy this particular passage:

Digital Books
When I travel, I read a lot. On the plane, in the car, relaxing on a relative’s back porch or a hotel balcony, even when dragged along on a shopping trip to visit those quaint (read: expensive) little shops—almost everywhere I go, I have a book with me. It might be work-related, it might be for research, it might be something I’m reading for pleasure. In fact, when I pack my bags for a trip, I generally include well over one hundred books tucked in among my jeans, shirts, and toiletry kit.
But of course I don’t actually carry one hundred printed books; together, those could easily weigh well over seventy-five pounds, and take up my entire suitcase. Instead, I carry the digital versions of those books, e-books, which weigh essentially nothing. There are several excellent dedicated readers available (the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook readers stand out, of course), but I like to use a small general-purpose tablet, since I already have it with me for e-mail, music, web surfing, and note-taking. (Right now my go-to tablet is an iPad mini. It’s about the size of a paperback book, though much thinner, and weighs about three-quarters of a pound. I can easily store hundreds of books on it.)

Not only do I save weight, but I also save a good deal of money when I buy the digital version of a book. The large-format paperback edition of one book I recently read (Erik Larson’s enthralling Dead Wake; Larson is an incredible researcher and a gifted storyteller), costs $17 from Barnes & Noble. The e-book version of the same publication costs $11, or about 34 percent less than the printed book. (If you purchase one hundred e-books and save two or three dollars apiece on them, you will have just paid for your tablet or reader. Of course, if you borrow digital books from a library, your savings are even more impressive.)

I also appreciate the authorial advantages offered by digital text. I can search for a term, a name, or a phrase; I can highlight and make notes, and I can then list all of those highlights or notes together in one place. If I’m quoting a passage, I can copy and paste that passage into a manuscript, thus ensuring that accessing the quote is convenient and that the quote itself is accurate. Although it takes some getting used to, there are undeniable advantages to using digital books.

Now, having said all of that, I should point out that I do realize not everyone is comfortable with e-books. Many of us (including myself; I am an English teacher, after all) enjoy the experience of handling and reading from a printed book; we feel that although the informational content may be the same, the experience of reading an e-book does not quite measure up to that of reading the printed version. The fact of the matter is that we love books, and printed books are what we grew up loving.

And there is a great deal to be said for the love of books—physical, printed, bound, ink-on-paper books. The inexplicable but undeniable beauty of them, stacked in disordered piles, or arrayed neatly on a shelf, or scattered about the house on every horizontal surface. The heft of them. The musty, paper-y smell of old books and the sharp, fresh-ink-on-paper smell of new books. The subdued colors of the bindings and the flash of cover photos. The tactile and aural experience of flipping a page. The convenience of scribbling in a margin or using a brightly colored sticky note to mark a favorite spot. (And some of you, I daresay, dog-ear pages in books. It’s okay, you can admit it. I’ve done it. But when I do, I can hear the angry voice of my mother: “Books are important! You don’t treat them that way.” And Mom was right, of course.)

I know (and agree with) all of that, but it’s difficult to ignore the ecological and economic imperatives that are driving the adoption of e-book technologies. Information, after all, is a weightless, formless commodity. For centuries, the best way to share that information was to attach it to a great deal of weight (in the form of paper), and then pay to ship that weight all over the world.

That is no longer the best way (that is, the most efficient, least harmful way) to communicate, to share information; it’s no longer the best way to show people how to do things, or to explain the world to them. Nor is it the most efficient way to allow people to share in the breathtaking adventure that is Moby-Dick, or to enjoy the whimsy of Peter Pan or the biting wit of Shakespeare; it’s no longer the least-expensive, most-accessible way to get caught up in the excitement of the latest political thriller, the currently popular young adult fantasy, or the most recent medical mystery.
Printed books, as much as many of us love them, are becoming less necessary because we now have alternatives to them that are more affordable and less injurious to the environment. Will physical books go away? Someday, perhaps, though surely not for quite a while. Still, I can see (and not without some profound misgivings) a new Middle Ages for books: a future in which printed books are once again so rare and so expensive that they are the province only of the wealthy, displayed for their beauty (and, of course, to advertise their owners’ affluence), but chained in place because their loss would be financially catastrophic.

The University of Nebraska’s Stephen Buhler doesn’t quite agree, though. Dr. Buhler feels that the printed book is here to stay, in some form or another, even as digital books increasingly make sense when presenting and discussing certain types of material.

“I foresee ways of managing ‘print-on-demand’ that keeps costs low without economies of scale. I also foresee different kinds of books suited to different technologies. The e-book is ideal for . . . [multimedia] presentation. A lot still has to be resolved over issues of Fair Use and intellectual property, but I would love to see books of criticism devoted to, for example, film or music that provide samples from (or links to) all the works under discussion. As much as I love the traditional book and as firmly as I believe in its continuance (and some studies suggest its revival is already under way), there are some things that e-book technology can do so very much better.” (If Dr. Buhler is right about print-on-demand technologies, perhaps printed books might once again become what Simon Horobin earlier called “a bespoke trade,” only this time a much more affordable, more accessible one.)

If the printed book does become a rarity, it will be a sad time, and we will have lost something important—something magnificent, in fact. But we will not have lost—in truth, we will have greatly enhanced—the ability to transmit information, to communicate with readers; the power that derives from knowledge will be available to more people, rather than to fewer.
I am not the only fan of Rod's new book. Here are a few blurbs from early readers (including one from our dear friend, Bellezza!):

An extremely relevant book for our times, Leveling the Playing Field does an amazing job documenting how technology has changed our society. Written in a style reminiscent of the James Burke Connections series, Rod drives home why the encryption debate is so important for the preservation of our rights, and why some governments so desperately want to restrict access to encryption technology. (Jim O'Gorman, Security expert, author, Metasploit: The Penetration Tester's Guide)

Don’t let the cover fool you. Although this book’s plot line traces the history and democratization of technology, its heart is about human nature: how and why we create tools, how tools are used to dominate and suppress others, and how in the end our inventions become accessible to everyone – sometimes for the worse, but far more often for the better. Scher is a witty tour guide as he illuminates more about humankind and our inventions than you might expect. (Calvin Clinchard, editor of CyberTrend magazine)

I read Leveling The Playing Field in two days, thoroughly engaged by the topic and author's writing style. Rod Scher clearly shows how technology is a powerful tool for disseminating information that began as early as prehistoric days. The questions he raises about the possible consequences that technology brings to everyday life are truly alarming, making this an important and fascinating book with a theme that affects all of us. (Meredith Smith, Dolce Bellezza)

Rod's extensive research into the history of technology is both impressive and engrossing. I found myself being drawn into each chapter and having a hard time putting it down. Rod takes an approach that gives you the deep dive history into the tech he is talking about and applies that history to its impact today. Rod is equal parts entertaining and educational. (Christopher Hadnagy, author of Unmasking the Social Engineer: The Human Side of Security)

A fast-paced and enlightening adventure, Leveling the Playing Field journeys from from fire to Firebee drones to the infinite possibilities of 3D printing. While Gutenberg's "start-up company" in Germany and Agatha Christie's husband's excavations in Mesopotamia will engross you, the author's asides about a potbellied piglet, Betamax, and presidential canines will amuse you. (Jenifer Edens, teacher at University of Houston – Language and Culture Center)

Leveling the Playing Field is engaging, entertaining, and often sneakily profound, offering expansive historical overviews and taking seriously the pitfalls of technology – all while remaining appreciative of its past accomplishments and hopeful about our shared future. (Stephen M. Buhler, Professor and Past Project Convener for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation's Leadership for Institutional Change, University of Nebraska)

A fascinating, educational and insightful narrative look at the march of technology from cave fire and the invention of language to the Internet and 3-D printing—and the competition, politics, privacy issues and moral quandaries it has produced in its wake. Leveling the Playing Field is a swift journey through history from simple convenience and self defense to the relevant and sometimes frightening questions surrounding the technology we readily take for granted today. I thoroughly enjoyed Scher’s depth of research as well as his wit. (Tosca Lee, NYT bestselling author)

Happy Tuesday, friends! Visit Bibliophile By the Sea for more introductions.


  1. Just pre-ordered my book, Les. Looking forward to reading it! Tell Rod that I'll do a review when I'm back to blogging after Labor Day. Loved the excerpt you shared. So excited for you guys!

    1. Thanks for the support, Kay! I'm glad to hear that you're not only going to read the book, but that you plan to come back to blogging after Labor Day. I've missed your posts!

  2. Thanks for sharing! I am eager to know more. Here's mine: “CONFESS”

  3. Sounds like a good read! Congrats to your husband.

    1. Thanks so much, Colleen. Let me know if you're interested in a copy for review on your blog or Goodreads. I'd be very happy to send you one.

  4. Love books that keep you up well into the night.

    1. Nise' it's very rare that I stay up late reading, so I'm pleased this one in particular has kept my interest. :)

  5. This sounds very good; thanks for bringing it to our attention Les.

    1. Thanks, Diane. I'm having a lot of fun recommending it to friends and customers at work.

  6. "And there is a great deal to be said for the love of books - " Just a wonderful paragraph. All the things I love about books. This is such a good book!

  7. awesome :o) ...since I research public opinions of and trust in technology, I guess I'll need to add this to my (e) reading list :o) congrats!!!

    1. Lisa, if you get a print copy, Rod would be happy to sign it for you. Kind of hard to do that on an e-book. ;)


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