Books: Hard Copy or E-?

How important are e-books for math?  I always start a blog with one question, and end up asking many more.

People according to their personality, their intentions, limitations and environments read differently.   Even when there were only hard copy books, I remember noting the different ways my fellow math graduate students read math books.  Some had a habit of reaching for a math book for bedtime reading.  To me, truly reading meant sitting at a desk or table, notebook and pen in hand, scribbling and drawing as I read. Others I knew sat perfectly still while reading, hardly moving a muscle for hours.  Some read while listening to music, and one person I knew even played piano while reading.

By now, most avid readers (particularly of non-technical books) are familiar with kindles and other e-readers. They are about the same size and weight of a paperback; you can turn pages with roughly the same movement; you can resize fonts, look up words you don’t know with an easy click;  many have their own light source; and most of all there is no weight difference between the data of one book and that of hundreds or thousands of them.   These qualities alone attract even diehard proponents of paper books, especially those who are frequent travelers.

But the popularity and availability of e-books and e-readers for mathematics lags behind.  What more can and should E-books offer, particularly in math?   Are we taking enough advantage of current technological capabilities?  Is there a need to specifically treat the particular nature of mathematics exposition?  Should we have moving graphics, and built-in software that help illustrate the material, perhaps with interactive feature?  What about making it possible for classes and reading groups to share comments online while reading a text?

Books are a medium for packaging and communicating ideas.  Assuming that there will always be a need to record and deliver mathematical ideas using some sort of print medium, do you think math e-books are here to stay, if so in what form, and how will they affect teaching, research and individual reading habits in the years to come?

Moving Things Around by Kerins, Young, Cuoco, Stevens, and Pilgrim.sstp-5-cov

Increasingly I see books that make me wonder…what would this look like if…?  One example is a new series of books produced by the Park City Summer Program  for secondary school teachers.   These sequenced collections of problems are carefully chosen to progress future teachers toward a deeper understanding of a subject through exploration, discussion and active learning: in this particular case the topic is permutations, symmetries and numbers.  Users of the book are encouraged to experiment with computer software and to work in teams.  Could electronic media help to implement the goals of these books on a wider scale, connecting people who are unable to attend sessions like the one at Park City?


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5 Responses to Books: Hard Copy or E-?

  1. Avatar Matilde Marcolli says:

    Certainly the current formats of ebooks are not suitable for mathematical content: apart from some horrible debacles with completely unreadable formulas on kindle (and other) ebook readers (on hugely expensive ebooks), it is not just the problem of properly displaying readable formulas and diagrams. Mathematics book have an important 3-dimensional nature, where one continuously needs to jump back and forth between a lot of different points in the book: something extremely easy to do with a print copy and an impossible nightmare on an ebook that is designed to linearly read a novel from first to last page. I don’t think print format will have a better replacement soon for mathematical content. That said, I personally often accompany the print copy I have of a book with a simple (and cheap) PDF file that is searchable, so I can search on the file and then I read and work back and forth on the paper copy.

  2. Avatar Steve Ferry says:

    I like e books. Being an old guy, the backlighting, high contrast, and ability to adjust the type size are important to me. It is helpful if the reader allows one to page quickly back and forth through the text. Being able to print a few pages at a time would also be a big help. I don’t see the need for video widgetry in advanced texts.

  3. Avatar David Fisher says:

    I do read math books in electronic format sometimes, but always as pdf or djvu on my ipad and not on my kindle. I agree with Matilde that none of this quite reproduces the high dimensional experience of reading a physical book, but the ipad is so much closer than the kindle. But I don’t know how singular this is to math books as opposed to academic reading more generally. Certainly I have heard many horrified and disdainful conversations about kindles and ebooks among English professors.

    But unless mathematicians stop travelling so much, ebooks are a part of our present and our future. I don’t have the talent for it, but I hope someone who does designs a better math ebook. I imagine a revolution of reading mathematics of roughly the same order as TeX was a revolution for the writing of it. I can’t imagine specifics, but I hope it comes soon.

  4. Avatar Barbara says:

    I agree with Matilde that the current ebook technology still cannot compare with an actual book, for the reasons listed; at the same time ebooks have changed our lives for the better since we’re no longer limited to what we can carry on our backs when traveling.
    It is my hope that future ebooks will be available which allow one to easily keep notes and switch back-and forth. I also think computer-like screens aren’t good for reading; what we need is something kindle-like but 4 times larger area wise (it’s no use being able to enlarge the character if then you have to squint at one quarter of the commutative diagram at a time).

    As for interaction, I think we’ll move to being able to add notes and put them online, so that people who are confused (something that happens to me a lot!) can click and see what others have to say. This is something I found useful already as a student, when the same effect was achieved by pencil remarks on the margin of the library copy.

    I also think that David Fisher’s comparison with TeX is true in another important sense: mathematicians use books like no one else. If we want a system which is tailored to our needs, we will have to build it ourselves. I think the AMS and its sisters societies can play a very important role in this.

  5. Avatar Robert Ghrist says:

    i have been working for two years on how to make a math e-book that is readable, since, as you note, kindle math books aren’t really working.

    i’ve come up with an approach that i think works. the good news is that it takes full advantage of the color space, form factor, and dynamics possible on a phone/tablet. the bad news is that it’s not compiled, and requires a lot of fine-detail manual positioning. also, it took a year just to get the fonts right, and they are as yet far from perfect.

    i’m 1200+ pages into this project, resulting in three e-books on multivariable calculus. you can see the latest entry here at the kindle store & use the “look inside feature”. but, really, it looks so much crisper on a good phone.

    rob ghrist, math, upenn

    ps: i’ve talked with folks at amazon about how to adapt the kindle platform more to the needs of math e-books. they were polite, but not really ready to move into that space yet from what i can tell.

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