Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reading in the era of the Jetsons

I’ve been hearing whispers and shouts about the forthcoming demise of printed books for quite a few years now. As one who works in the publishing industry, is a writer, and also does plenty of book reading, such news is worrisome. Yet I’ve managed not to lose much sleep over it. In part this is due to my personality, but mostly it’s because I have not taken the threat very seriously. I did not realistically envision books going away any time soon.

Innovations have made many products obsolete over the course of history (I hardly ever operate a rotary dial in a phone booth anymore), but the printed book so far has seemed impervious to the march of time. Unlike the process of listening to music, which over my lifetime has changed from being most commonly done on records to 8-tracks to cassette tapes to CD’s and currently to audio files transferred from computer to Ipod/cell phone/etc., I’ve continued to read books in the same manner from the first one I enjoyed to the one most recently completed. What little variety there has been to the experience has been relegated to minor differences such as whether I read a particular book in hardcover format, or trade paperback style, or in the form of a mass market paperback. Either way I read words printed on paper, turning physical pages with my three dimensional fingers to make the journey from front cover to back. Nothing appeared broken about this process, it appeared to be quite flawless actually, so there seemed no point to doing any fixing.

But the beat is designed by divine plan to go on, and the message of the tune is that change is inevitable. Why be satisfied with a perfectly functioning mousetrap when a better one can be built (one with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles and perhaps even lasers, a 21st century mousetrap even though mice themselves are the same as they’ve been since the first century, still suckers for a piece of cheese or some peanut butter)? People read for the same basic reasons now as they did 100 years ago, but why should they do so in the same old school manner if someone comes up with a way to make it more technologically sophisticated? If Darwin’s infamous theory makes any sense to you then so does the inevitability of the electronic reading device. And just as the computer I’m writing these words in/on makes the first computer I ever owned seem like a toy whittled in woodshop, the e-reader no doubt has a number of improvements in store for it. It already has come a long way in its brief history. In this day and age advancement is measured not in decades or years, but quarters. A device designed to make your job easier in January will make your position obsolete by December. So I was no more surprised to learn that the Kindle 2.0 is a wonderfully improved version of the original draft then I will be to learn that 3.0 can do everything 2.0 does, plus make you a great cup of coffee.

Does an e-reader contain features that make it vastly superior to what a printed book can “do”, which is to simply sit there and be read? Of course. On top of that, “go green” has become so trendy that it’s now the new black, and what could be more economically friendly in the world of publishing than eliminating the need for paper? Is the extinction of printed books therefore a foregone conclusion? In spite of some solid evidence, that’s not a bet I’d make. There are plenty of practical reasons why it’s better to have an e-reader than a library card. The same exact statement can be made in reverse with equal strength of logic. Therefore I won’t even bother to list the pros and cons. Your own personal inclinations will determine which medium makes the stronger argument for itself. I think it’s safe to say that in the future a great deal more people will own a Kindle or equivalent rival device than do today. But unlike the 8-track player I once owned, bookshelves will not go the way of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Books and electronic readers will come to peacefully co-exist. People will have their particular reading preferences largely dependent on the nature of what is being read. I personally am far more likely to consume an article such as this one (which contains the frightening sentences - The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.) off of a screen than I would be willing to tackle Moby Dick or War and Peace in similar space age fashion. As long as people who feel as I do on this matter continue to walk the earth, evolution will not lead to a total reading revolution. At least not in my lifetime probably, but if I was transported to the future to see my grandkids doing some light reading, I wouldn't be shocked if no paper was involved beyond the instruction manual for the reading device.

Certainly there will be ripple effects caused by improving technology. Jobs will be lost, industries redesigned, thus creating new jobs, but in the end writers will continue to create stories and readers will continue to enjoy them. And what matters most to me are the stories, not the delivery system. Had quality digital on demand printing not come along, ebooks might have had an easier time defeating the necessarily high print runs demanded by web presses, brandishing the weapon of infinite storage space. As it is, the average person who owns an e-reader probably bought it not because it made their life so much easier than back in the stone ages when they had to haul around individual books, but simply because he/she is a techie, into high tech gadgets for gadget owning sake. Those who own hundreds or even thousands of books might appreciate being able to hold all of that content in the palm of their hands. Then again, they may love the physical appearance of all those book spines they have shelved.

It’s probably possible to design a computer capable of writing a decent novel, if not today then by next week, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t be as good as the best of those to be written by flesh and blood human beings. Following this line of reason I determine that paper comes from trees, which are living things, so the person enjoying a story on paper has an organic connection to the person who created it. New age malarkey? Probably. I just wrote the words and I’m not sure I truly buy them. What I am certain of is that after posting this article and then having dinner with a glass of wine, I intend to curl up with a good book (The Name of the Rose in case you’re interested), and I just don’t believe I’d be able to duplicate the experience with Kindle 2.0. Simulate it for sure, but not duplicate.

- Roy Pickering Author of Patches of Grey (ink printed on paper) Patches of Grey (Amazon's Kindle) Patches of Grey (B&N's Nook) & Feeding the Squirrels (available exclusively in a variety of electronic formats)

The Great E-Books Vs. Print Debate


  1. I was notified of this blog note by a Twitter SMS message on my iPhone, where I subsequently read the note and am now responding.

    There is subtle irony... :-)

    Ultimately, what is at the core of your art - or *any* art, for that matter?

    Your words mix with my experience to paint a scene where there is no canvas at all. What form the transmission takes is almost inconsequential, a matter of simple preference. Mastery of casting bronze versus carving marble, or mastery of water colors versus acrylics, for instance, require mastery of the medium; but, words are not so bounded... Your favorite passage has the same impact whether read in a manuscript, a first-edition print, a web site, or whether held in memory. Books may go out of style, but the art survives unscathed.

  2. Roy/Joe - both beautifully said! You guys have to meet one of these days soon!.

  3. Erin- I am not one to argue with artists! I'm looking forward to the reunions and introductions ;-)