There’s something about a book that is irreplaceable. I am an avid lover of books. When I say that, I mean the medium of books itself, not just the words on the page. I have a deep fondness and appreciation of these wonderful things that have brought so much into our lives. They’ve carried knowledge between eras, they have preserved the accounts of our successes, our failures, and our atrocities, and they have kept us company on many an evening. Books truly are magical. But, all things change. The world isn’t static and technology is always rocketing ahead. Now we have the e-reader, the digital analog to books. As a technology nerd, it’s exciting to see a technology I’d read about years ago finally make it into an actual product but on the other hand, as a life-long bibliophile, this new development sits uneasily with me. Can e-readers replace the book? Should they? (The last question is rhetorical. The correct answer is “no.”) And is the stage large enough for both media to exist?
As I said, there is something unique about books that an e-reader cannot simulate. This goes beyond just the nostalgia factor. The weight and type of paper used in a book lets you know a lot about it before you even see the first word. You already know how long or short it is and how much effort the publisher took in binding it. You may not realize you’re making these judgments but you are. For instance a Harlequin romance vs. Stephen King’s From a Buik 8. There is an obvious difference to size and attention to how the books are bound. Harlequins tend to be fairly light paper, have thin, glossy covers with some raised lettering and are fairly homogeneous. Stephen King’s book has a cover with a porthole that reveals part of a picture underneath so it looks like that image is being reflected in the titular car’s rear view mirror. The publisher designed this presentation with a little extra care. Sure the paper isn’t noticeably thicker, maybe a bit, but the quality of the presentation is already signaling your brain that there is a lot of care and confidence in the book. There is no way to get this kind of information from an e-reader. An e-reader cannot match the physicality of a book and thus some of the info we use for first impression is lost in translation. But that isn’t to say that e-readers don’t have some selling points as well.
First, I need to clarify that I’m only talking about dedicated e-readers and not the various tablet wannabes out there. This is about those products that have reading as their primary function. With these e-readers one word comes to mind: convenience. They are small and portable and can do a variety of handy things such as looking up words with the built-in dictionary. A very useful thing if you’re always looking to build up your vocabulary. The other nice thing about these e-readers is that if you want a book and you have either 3G or wifi connection, you can get it downloaded to the device in a flash. If you voraciously devour stories, this is a great function to have. Instant access to thousands upon thousands of books! However, the rise of the e-reader still concerns me and raises questions.
The history of advancement is essentially a big graveyard. Progess tends to leave a high body count of technologies that go obsolete then go extinct. In recent memory, we have the supplanting of the VHS cassette (which did away with Betamax way back when) by the DVD. The CD nixed the audio cassette and is in turn being nudged out by all digital mp3 formats. Closer to home, the typewriter was outdone by the word processor. And we all know that video killed the radio star. (If you don’t get the reference then you must go back and watch every episode of I Love the 80’s and all of its sequel series RIGHT NOW!) What I fear is that books may suffer a similar fate. Just recently, the chain Borders went down and a little piece of me died. I know that the economy is bad and maybe people don’t have as much disposable income to give for books but I don’t see Hollywood with this problem which makes me think that it is books that are suffering a particular down turn in popularity. Maybe I’m paranoid, but this dive seems to be correlated to the rise of the e-reader. Why buy a physical book when you can download it instantly from almost anywhere? I fear that books may end up in the trash heap of technological history like so many other technologies before it. As the world becomes more and more digital, the appeal of a physical book seems to be waning. An e-reader can do many things. A book is, for all intents and purposes, inert. Now, everything has to be multifunctioned or we lose interest in it. How can a book hope to compete with that? However, many say that books will never die. There will always be a market for book lovers. I can only hope that this is the case and that publishing itself won’t take a hit from an associated issue that the age of the e-reader has created.
Piracy has hit movies and music pretty hard. People pirate pretty much anything and everything and all attempts at stopping such behavior have been abject failures. Books on the other hand, have enjoyed a rather privileged position of being less convertible into directly transferable media. But now, the e-book makes piracy easier than ever since many books are converted into a digital form. This may prove to be a threat to authors and publishers. Being an author was never an extremely lucrative business unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling but now that the threat of mass piracy hangs over your head, coupled with an economic downturn that makes publishers apprehensive of committing money to anything unless they’re sure they’ll recoup their investment and make a profit, being an author is more frightening than ever. If everyone is just copping your books and you don’t see bugger all from it, then what do you do to make ends meet? And it’s all nice to want our authors tortured souls or living in poverty but utterly dedicated to their art and willing to suffer for it, but by failing to support our authors, we discourage them from putting their all into what they produce. We thus lose out on great talents who have to turn their attention to paying the bills and buying food instead of making books. In the end, authors and publishers are people who expect to see some compensation for the work they’ve done. And it may break some people’s hearts to hear that an author wants to be payed, as if the joy of writing isn’t enough to sustain them, but being a writer is a job. Try asking your plumber to do the job pro bono and I bet he’ll leave you with your drain still clogged. And the ironic bit? The writer will probably continue to write because that is what a writer does. A writer can’t help but write. I don’t think we can help it. I’d go so far as to say it’s like a person with obsessive compulsive disorder. If you’re a writer, you must write. But with the threat of piracy, a writer may just do it to entertain him or herself and not bother going through the trouble it takes to get it published.
In the end, the debate between e-readers and books is far from over. I was in Barnes and Noble today and they had row upon row of their Nook e-reader. Maybe this is the new paradigm. Cater to both markets. Maybe, instead of discouraging new writers, e-books and the massive marketplace of the internet will give rise to new talents. Why can’t we have both? While the future is frightening I am hopeful that we may be approaching a new way to distribute and access our writing. As long as there are still good old fashioned books and we continue to foster the talents of our writers, maybe the future of books will have a happy ending.