Are Miniature Books the New Smartphone?

Die Psalme Davids: Nach fransösischer Melodeij in Teutsch Reimen gebracht. Basel, 1659 (a miniature book bound in tortoiseshell). Image: Wikipedia.

Die Psalme Davids: Nach fransösischer Melodeij in Teutsch Reimen gebracht. Basel, 1659 (a miniature book bound in tortoiseshell). Image: Wikipedia.

I tend to be slow to adopt new technology. I was probably the last person on the block to have dial-up internet service. I still have a landline. And I held out on getting a smartphone until just last year. But once I adopt a new technology I turn into an addict.

Computer scientist and work habit guru Cal Newport warns about smartphone addiction. He has a suggestion for breaking habitual phone checking. When you’re out and about simply don’t check your phone, even when you’re in a long line at the post office. Newport’s reasoning is that by constantly checking your phone you’re training yourself to be a shallow thinker.

But there’s still all those long, boring lines to deal with. What about reading a book instead? Newport might not agree, but at least it’s better than checking a phone. I’m hoping that a little more book reading might help counteract my shortened attention span (which I blame on the internet).

A short history of tiny books
One of the convenient things about a smart phone is that it puts the whole internet in your pocket. But long before Snapchat people carried miniature books. Prayer books and the bible were popular in miniature form. In the 19th century, improved printing technology brought a wider variety of tiny books aimed at travelers.

In the 20th century the miniature book became an end in itself. Rather than utility, miniature books are now objects to collect. This is not what I’m interested in. Rather, I’m looking for books that are small (non necessarily miniature) and convenient to carry while on the train or running errands.

81keznrblllPractical small books
Penguin has a long history of publishing books in smallish (not miniature) form. Since the 90s I’ve occasionally picked up their inexpensive and short classics series such as Thoreau’s essay Walking and Michel De Montaigne’s Four Essays. Kelly just got me their Little Black Classics Boxed Set which includes 80 works of short fiction and non-fiction by authors as varied as Samuel Pepys, Edith Wharton and Dante.

But the first book I started my cellphone alternative experiment with is Ammianus Marcellinus’ History Books 14-19 in an edition that’s part of the Loeb Classical Library. Loeb books are handsome, small and sturdy hardbacks with English on one page and Latin or Greek on the opposite page. Marcellinus is an entertaining Roman historian whose extant books chronicle the tumultuous years around the time of Constantine. So far it’s even more lurid than the updates on our current presidential election I get when I glace at the iPhone.

Yes, you can read books on a smartphone, but I still think that the medium of a paper book lends itself to developing a greater ability to focus. And as Cal Newport suggests, anyone who can focus on a problem in depth for a long period of time will be more valuable than those of us with the attention span of a flea. My prediction is that the cool kids will be reading tiny books.


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  1. Having a land line may be an oddity in southern California, but here in Vermont the cell service is spotty even on the very best of days. Everybody has a land line. The husband’s cell phone doesn’t get any bars until he gets into Chester, about 10 miles away.

    When I’m in a long line I just look around – at scenery, at people, at traffic – I’ve got this fantasy that while everyone else has their eyes on phones, I’ll be the person who can confidently identify a perp because I was the only one paying attention.

  2. “Pocket Books” were first put out in the ’30 and made to fit in your pocket so you could have something to read while you waited. The print is easier to read than some of those miniature books. I always kept a paperback nearby as I felt the need to multi task even as a kid. Maybe I’ll go back to that. There is only so much of interest on my smart phone and I don’t read books on it.

  3. I like carrying a paperback in my bag for long waits, but I also like to have a small sketch pad and pen. I find sketching (or just doodling) challenges my mind in an enjoyable way and tends to connect me to my environment instead of disengaging me from it.

  4. Tiny books probably mean tiny print, no thanks!

    I have the Kindle App on my smart phone and my tablet, they automatically sync on bookmarks between the devices, I can have as many books as I want in the space of my smart phone and I can adjust the text size if my eyes get tired or if I forget my glasses! Not as elegant as a tiny book but, if it’s in your pocket anyway, might as well use it to get some reading done. Only thing that I wish is that they would allow me to pass e-books on to friends when I’m done with them like a regular book.

  5. I have some really lovely “tiny books” from the 19th century! Several versions of the New Testament and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. They are super cute, but I admit, I couldn’t read them without reading glasses!

    I like to carry a purse that is big enough for a paperback book, but I also read books on my phone. Right now (and for the foreseeable future) I am reading War & Peace! If that doesn’t encourage concentration, I don’t know what would. I do agree that the temptation to obsess over election results or surf facebook can be a problem with a smartphone. Once I open the Kindle App, I’m okay, but there’s a moment before I open it where it’s possible I’ll be dragged into the dark forest of internet time wastage.

    I’m also reading the complete Montaigne’s essays on my phone. Very slowly. Both books are not ones I would be likely to carry around in person due to size.

  6. I do have to admit that I have tiny books of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ and ‘The Prophet’ by Kahlil Gibran, don’t carry them with me very often though.

  7. I don’t mind carrying a small book like The Pearl, but you won’t catch me carrying something like a Leatherstocking Tale. If I can read, an hour seems like 10 minutes. I suppose that is why magazines are doctor’s offices.

    Reading on a kindle or the like would not seem like reading, just a chore.

    I have Magic Jack at home, paying less than $3 each month last time I paid. You don’t need an internet connection. Plus, all calls can go to your computer in an email, go to your cell. There is no need for a computer with the new devices.

    There were so many Magic Jack sites and numbers on the internet that I did not want to get a scammer who would then have my information. The correct number to call for that is 844-866-2442. Hope this helps.

  8. I carry knitting with me, or a book. My phone is deliberately not loaded with apps, etc. I get many comments on the knitting, but I look at it as a chance to bring non knitters to the dark side.

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