I’ve stumbled across a few posts recently about e-readers and how they compare to books. The overwhelming consensus is that e-readers aren’t there yet, but this rather obvious observation seems to be leading people to two completely wrong conclusions.
One group of people are concluding from the current technological shortfall that books will always be better than technology, therefore there will always be a need for books. Well, no…and yes.
Books as objects are wonderfully refined, as you might expect them to be after hundreds and hundreds of years of evolution. But they are still objects, defined not by our emotional associations and childhood memories, but by cold facts such as weight, reflectivity, contrast, etc. These properties, however many there are, can be reproduced in other objects, and will be reproduced in an electronic reader. This is going to happen, and when it does happen many people will adopt e-readers reasons including memory capacity or online connectivity.
Again, to put a point on it: e-readers will evolve, probably fairly quickly, to a point at which the reading experience is as fluid and qualitatively equivalent to reading a book. But this doesn’t mean that books as objects will disappear. What will disappear, again, fairly quickly, are the hundreds of thousands of tons of disposable books that currently populate chain bookstores around the world. These books, designed to be consumed like fast food, are already hostage to a medium they do not fully exploit, so the transition to digital should be a relief for all involved — including the poor books.
What will remain in book form will be books as objects of art, books as historical artifacts, books as keepsakes, books as collectibles, books as study guides, books as old friends, and, most important of all, books as non-electronic objects that won’t crash, run out of battery power, go on the fritz, blow up, overheat, or generally do anything except be available to you any time you have enough available light to read.
Another group of people seems to think the fact that e-readers have not reached a level of ease equivalent to books means we need to junk e-readers and pursue some other sort of device instead. A tablet, say, or a smaller hand-held, or — pant-pant! — whatever Apple is cooking up in their basement. Because you know they are! They’ve had the blinds down for, like, six weeks! OMG!!!
This kind of geekery is fine for people who like all things tech, but for the average citizen it’s completely beside the point. E-readers aren’t tools to the general reading public, they’re a set of functions. Put those functions in something else and bang: you’ve got an e-reader no matter what you call it.
The bottom line here is that content that was almost exclusively found in books is going to be going digital in a big way in the next few years. Just as the internet — a digital medium — has already expanded from BBS messages to email to web sites to online magazines and newspapers, it will continue to expand to books and movies and anything and everything else you can imagine.
It is going to happen. It is already happening. The machinery is a footnote.
— Mark Barrett