Having heard rumblings about ‘a reading revolution’ for a while now, perhaps its time to seriously consider the prospect of a paradigm shift from traditional books to handheld eBook devices. It seems there is a split down the middle between those who are stalwart veterans of the paperback, and those anti-Luddites who see the future in solely digital versions. The technologies available are, as always, constantly evolving, but for the purposes of comparison I’ll focus on arguably the most advanced reader out at the moment, Amazon’s Kindle 2.
Undoubtedly the biggest draw of eBooks is convenience. Texts are quick to obtain, circumventing problems of trying to get hard-to-find or out-of-print editions. As a literature graduate, this would definitely have come in handy instead of scouring AbeBooks and other such sources for hours on end. Also, particularly with the Kindle’s 3G technology, books can be updated instantly – so no more waiting for the new version to be printed! Not only is this incredibly useful for current nonfiction books, but it could seriously alter the possibilities for the ways in which fiction books are written; for example they could be serialised, a la Dickens or Conan Doyle in ‘the good old days’.
More obviously, hundreds of books could be carried on the move, ready to be perused according to your mood. Think of the shift between carrying only one album for your walkman, and having to settle for whatever you picked up that morning, to having your entire music collection at your disposal via mp3 technology. This has the potential to have a huge emancipatory effect particularly on education; no more lugging around of several hefty textbooks – a student would just carry a relatively small electronic device instead!
Further, there is the potential for extra functionality with an eBook. Somewhat like the already-available electronic versions of books available from academic libraries, a digitised version would allow for hotlinking to the internet, extensive referencing, and the ability to search the book. Also, the text could be adjusted in terms of font size or typescript for partially sighted, the elderly or the young. Books could also be read in any lighting, meaning sadly no more formative childhood years spent hiding under the bedcovers with a torch! Thanks to the multiple technologies already familiar to us in our other day-to-day gadgetry, the possibilities for reading are almost endless.
Despite these improvements, many purists and pundits alike (myself included) think that pronouncing the death of the book is somewhat premature. For a start, no reading device will ever match up to the aesthetic ritual of the book. The debate persists as to whether sensory experience ought to count or not in evaluating such a technological shift, but I think this reason alone is enough to ensure that there will always be a demand for ‘real’ books. Saying that, there are alternatives to that wonderful whiff of fresh paper, ink and glue as you flick through a book you’ve just picked up off the shelves.
Joking aside, the physical aspect of books is part of their fantastic utility; anyone who reads regularly is aware of the implicit discernment as their houseguests browse their bookshelves. Also, how would you lend your copy of your favourite, life-changing book to a friend if all you had was a digitised version? On a individual note, I tend to personalise books I give as gifts with an idiosyncratic note on the prefatory page – which would not be an option with eBooks. One can buy ‘real’ books safe in the knowledge that if you wish, you can sell it on, or at least donate it to the local Oxfam bookshop. Despite this, most recently-published eBooks cost the same as their physical counterparts, so why not get the most for your money and invest in something that you can pass on and share with others? Is that not an integral part of reading and learning?
Onto the cost – Amazon is retailing its Kindle 2 for $359, roughly £235. It’s somewhat astronomical to the ordinary person, particularly whilst public libraries remain absolutely free. Also, unlike other gadgets forged from the ethos that ‘smaller is better’, eBook readers surely cannot be compacted much further beyond ‘booksize’, due to both ease of use and technological limitations. So, whilst your shiny new iPod can be astutely slipped out of sight into your pocket during use, your expensive investment will be on open display to any nimble-fingered thief on the commuter train with you.
Finally, like all electronic appliances, eBook readers are susceptible to technological hiccups. The software may take some getting used to – more complex than a ‘real’ book at any rate. And compared to a relatively sturdy book, these devices cannot be dropped amongst the paraphernalia in the bottom of your bag or used in the bath. If the battery runs out, you’re stuck toting a (large) useless plastic lump around till you next get to a plug socket.
Most interesting for me in this debate though, is the potential for a more environmentally-friendly mode of entertainment and learning. More than once have I paused at the checkout of a bookshop and wondered: despite the unquestionable worthiness of its content (I think I have decent literary taste!), how many trees were felled for the volume in my hand? It’s difficult to determine which is most efficient, but the general consensus seems to be that if you take into account the materials involved in the manufacture and the energy consumed in running the device, and also the fact that once a book is printed, it requires no more resources ad infinitum, books seem to win out.
Ultimately I think this debate is not quite a simple either/or competition. It asks more profound questions about the nature of one of the most ingenious and enduring inventions humanity has ever dreamt up. What exactly is a book? Is it just the content, just the collection of words? Does it include the jacket design, and the blurb on the cover? And what happens once all books have been digitised and centralised (a la Google Book Search). In the future will we just need one singular ‘book’ to replace all published items everywhere?
All said and done, books have lasted so long (its 560 odd years since the Gutenberg Bible) that they probably won’t go anywhere anytime soon. As much of a stickler as I am for traditional books, I don’t fear technology. When the print press originally came out, did it not remove some of the ‘aura’ of handwritten texts, whilst democratising literature overall? I think as it stands, eBook readers are ultimately only for a niche market, given their potential flaws and high costs. Until further refinements are made – and have no doubt they will – the demographic most likely to find use for these devices is the one, ironically, least likely to be able to afford them: students.
Even when they are improved, they will merely provide an alternative means of reading, with an entirely different experience. Physical books and eBooks are not in direct competition for exactly the same market, limited by the absolute differences in what the reader gets from each method. Thus to suggest that one will render the other obsolete is spurious, and I think its reasonably safe to say that our trusty old bookshelves will remain mostly unscathed for the foreseeable future!