02/10/2012 11:14 am ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

Where e-Books Fall Short, Print Delivers

The recent news from Pew Internet that e-reader ownership has almost doubled over this past holiday season makes it tempting to say that print books are not long for this world; after Amazon realized that many e-book readers enjoy browsing for titles in a brick-and-mortar store only to download them on their devices, and then sought to capitalize on such a trend, indie bookstores fought back and claimed a minor victory. Today, many are framing Barnes & Noble as publishing's last stand against Amazon -- it feels as though anxiety and tensions are high as ever.

But I don't think we need to worry; as with the discovery that vinyl record sales have risen in the past six years in a market dominated by MP3 downloads, it's useful to put considerable thought in where each platform, digital or analogue, excel for each medium -- and publishers are going back to the drawing board to see where they can innovate with printed books to keep readers interested.

Some fun is lost in the e-book for those whom find reading to be a voyeuristic experience as I do. In a subway car or at a park, I take pleasure in seeing what is being read around me, for a non-confrontational glimpse at my neighbors' personalities or interests. Seeing someone read an e-book, nondescript and unrevealing of what's displayed on the screen, leaves little to the imagination.

Thankfully, where e-books fall short, print delivers.

Recently publishers have tried to refresh the way we consume print books by offering a whole new print format, the Flipback book. The Flipback was designed for the smartphone-toting generation, touting itself as "giving book lovers a real reading experience with the portability of a mobile phone" -- as if your mass market paperback were not portable enough -- and its being "always fully charged." The book opens vertically, rather than a traditional book's opening horizontally, making it easy to hold in one hand, ideal for the subway commuter.

But sometimes it's useful to look to the past for innovative solutions: reading for the first time The Medium Is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan (1967) (designed by Quentin Fiore and produced by Jerome Angel) felt life-changing -- not just for the ideas expressed by the late media theorist, but for how the book's design challenged the conventions of reading the printed page. The text, which many would likely find rather dense or difficult to parse, was made comprehensible by visual aids illustrating points made in the book: in one section, the reader was made to hold the book in front of a mirror to read backwards text; on the next page, you must rotate the book to read upside-down. These tricks may seem gimmicky, but actually make for an engaging reading experience that's pleasing for the eye, and with surprises beyond each page that push the boundaries of print.

Inventory Books, a series of books published by Princeton Architectural Press and designed by Project Projects, takes a lot from The Medium Is the Massage; in fact, the latest book in the series, The Electric Information Age Book: McLuhan/Agel/Fiore and the Experimental Paperback tackles the work as an example of books produced in the 60s and 70s that paired text and graphic design that "brought the ideas of contemporary thinkers to the masses." Paging through Street Value, the first of the Inventory Books series -- which is less unconventional than McLuhan, Angel and Fiore's production -- I found the use of primary sources like advertisements, imagery and newspaper clippings made the text more accessible as you would expect exploring a multi-media presentation to be.

So, obviously such tactics can easily be re-created in a digital format. But what makes them interesting in book form is the notion of the book as an object in itself, a set-piece with potential to spark, upon its being noticed, conversation -- not unlike my love for seeing what strangers read around me in public.

There are a lot of beautiful books being published today, notably Little, Brown and Company's Malcolm Gladwell: Collected, Melville House's Art of the Novella series, an assortment of graphic novels and really any issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. I won't deny that when I'm expecting company I'll leave out the best books for guests to be impressed by. After all, most books in our home are purely for decoration, no?

This piece was originally published on The Donnybrook Writing Academy.