Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eeee! Books

  I have just read another article predicting the imminent demise of the printed book as we know it. E-books are about to rule the world and publishing houses of the traditional kind will plunge into the abyss of bankruptcy if they don't get a new idea. At the same time, our fair city of Canberra is in the middle of a regular twice a year secondhand book fair which is run to benefit a local charity. It is absolutely huge, and gets bigger every year. Are the buyers stockpiling against the paper book millennium? Are those who donate the books turfing out their libraries in order to replace them with a petite electronic gizmo or two?
  I recently acquired a Kindle; not the most sexy of electronic devices, monochrome with a little screen and lousy book navigation. In fact a tiny girl of about two who keeps coming to investigate it when I'm filling in time at my granddaughter's gym class thinks it is the most useless and boring Nintendo DS she has ever seen. Nevertheless it has its uses. I can download for free very imperfect scans of old books that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, or unobtainable. I can also download recreational reading without filling up my ever decreasing bookshelf space. It's great for reading in bed, because if you fall asleep, it does too, and it doesn't lose its place. It does have the unfortunate feature than when it goes to sleep it displays a grainy old picture of some defunct author. It is quite scary to wake up in the night and find Harriet Beecher Stowe glowering at you over the bedcovers.
   There are some books I think I would always prefer to be in paper form, such as dictionaries, reference material where you might want to have six books open at the same time, or highly illustrated material. I once wrote a review of an electronic dictionary for a journal of online and multimedia matters. The editor said she would never have believed a review of a dictionary could be so funny. A representative of the dictionary wrote an indignant letter with a long list of what he claimed were factual errors or unknowable things, for all of which I was able to prove him incorrect. The journal went belly up, but I don't think that was me. Hey, all I did was speculate on what kind of book you could write with a dictionary that included esoteric Australian slang and a rather peculiar assortment of proper nouns, including the names of French philosophers and nuclear physicists. Then I said I preferred a dictionary with pages.
  I suspect (Nostradamus moment!) that paper books and electronic books will co-exist for a long time yet. Publishing houses will have to get out of their 19th century industrial mode of production and distribution or they will go the way of the dodo. At the moment, it is faster and cheaper to order a paper book online for yourself than have a bookseller do it, and if publishers don't provide electronic services, they are doomed. But for some things, we just like our books.
  The electronic book might just send the book back into a more medieval mode. We have all been taught how naughty it is to write on our industrial type books or to alter things, but with the capacity in electronic media to make annotations on other people's work, or update our own, we might end up with something more like those medieval glossed works with commentary dribbled all around the core text and every version just a bit different. Librarian's nightmare!


Curt Emanuel said...

I don't accept the demise of paper books yet either. For myself, I just retain information better when I read it on paper than on a screen. I don't know why but if I see something electronically that I really want to analyze, I print it off.

That said, the day of the bookstore may come to an end eventually. Here in the US a major chain, Borders, is in serious financial trouble (IMO largely because they didn't pursue a strong on-line sales option). I can see the adoption of print-on-demand books and the proliferation of those machines, once they're perfected. Can you imagine being stuck in an airport and not having to rely on what's selling in a kiosk but having the option of going to a machine that will, for a fee, print off any book you might want to read?

Once all those people who started primary school reading from a screen become the majority of the book-buying public this may change but for at least the next couple of decades, I think books are safe.

Good post and interesting topic.

H. Doug Matsuoka said...

I’ve been a big fan of ebooks from the previous attempt by Microsoft’s .lit format. That was a great format but was marked for death by Microsoft’s zany copy protection Digital Rights Management scheme. I’m currently using the Kindle app on my iPad which also offers all the distractions from the internet and apps like GarageBand, etc. The Kindle app will show you what other readers have highlighted, but doesn’t currently share your notations. I think there is another ebook reader that does. Nook, maybe?

I now generally read the electronic version of books. The most recent books that I bought that were paper books featured images of manuscript pages and I felt the need for actual physical “paperyness.”

I also live in a tiny apartment that can’t accommodate many books (or anything else), so I’m happy. Still, there is a certain fetishization of books that’s understandable, and even enjoyable. Is everyone familiar with the tumblr site BookshelfPorn? Here’s the URL:

Bill Hill, the creator of Microsoft’s ClearType and the .lit ebook format has a blog called The Future of Reading here:

And while I’m dispensing links, here’s my review of the Kindle iPad version of The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr:

I think there are still books that are better in paper too, but that’s because a physical book with pages has a great deal more bandwidth than an ebook. At least at the present moment. Try thumbing through an ebook and you’ll know what I mean. But, I suppose Moore’s Law will catch up to this in short order.


Dianne said...

BookshelfPorn! Now that's a cornucopia of delights. Some of the pictures remind me of Terry Pratchett's L Space - a strange warping of space found only in libraries and bookshops, where reversing the way in will not find you the way out. Also, I guess, a reminder of why we might need a more compact form of book storage if we still want our families to live in the house.