A reader writes, apropos of my recent suggestion (made in passing) that “the printed book [will give] way…to the hand-held electronic book-reading device”:
I have a Handspring Treo 90 handheld, and I use it in about equal measure for tweaking manuscripts in progress and for reading books in various electronic formats. With a little memory chip plugged in, it’s got 128 Mb of capacity, which holds, well, a LOT of nearly-purely-text books. Literally hundreds of them, particularly since some of the “books” are short stories and essays rather than novels or non-fiction volumes.
This is absolutely wonderful for taking with me when I leave the house. I’ve got all my lists of, for instance, books and music people like you recommend that I want to look into, and my notes about which volumes I have in series I want to complete, and the clothing sizes and color tastes of people I buy gifts for. And I’ve got all these great books: lightweight entertainment, scholarly works, references, public-domain classics, a bit of this and that. The handheld goes in a pocket, is rugged, and runs many, many hours on a battery charge. I can pull it out and read a few pages while waiting for the bus, while waiting in
checkout lines, while in the bathroom, and so on. On nice spring and autumn days, I sometimes take the handheld and my iPod and go out for a walk to the local park, where I can kick back with good music and good reading and very little to keep track of.
Some e-book formats, like those from iSilo, Palm Digital Media, and MobiPocket, allow for extensive annotation and bookmarking, all done with electronic attachments to the file for a book that leave the
original undisturbed. This can be really handy when doing reference-intensive research on volumes that I wouldn’t want to mark up physical copies of, and I can compactly save all my notes for later reference without clutter.
I regard this not as competition for my printed books but as an additional alternative. No e-book format I’m aware of could do justice to something like Full Moon, the glorious collection of Apollo mission
photographs of the Moon, or a good museum exhibit catalog, or for that matter natural history books like Walking With Dinosaurs and the Time-Life series. Whenever photographs and diagrams matter, print is the way to go. E-books operate effectively only in the realm of text. Nor do e-books offer a replacement for the satisfactions of a well-made old book, or a classy contemporary edition. For that matter, it’s hard to
autograph an e-book, unless it has Palm Digital Media’s provision for that.
So: e-books are handy when I’m concerned only with text, when I want to take a lot of text in a very compact way, and when I want to mark up heavily. The upshot for me of having a growing library of e-books is that I can take better care of my printed volumes and focus a bit more on buying print with an eye toward quality, since I’ve got this option for uses where aesthetics matter less.
One reader’s views, anyway.
This is the most vivid account I’ve ever seen of the experience of using a hand-held e-book reader. The thing about it that I find most provocative, however, is my correspondent’s suggestion that e-books will not replace “the satisfactions of a well-made old book, or a classy contemporary edition.”
I’ve never collected books qua books, precisely because I feared acquiring an expensive addiction, but I do love a handsome volume, and I’ve always been fussy about the design of my own books. (I’m really excited about A Terry Teachout Reader, by the way–Yale has done a fantastic job on it, inside and out.)
At the same time, I’m not at all sure that I wouldn’t be perfectly content to ditch the text-only books in my library and replace them with e-books. Naturally we’re not talking about art books, and I imagine I’d also want to hang on to my uniform edition of Henry James…but maybe not. As I said in the posting to which my reader is referring, I’m interested in essences, not their embodiments, and even though I’m a hopeless typeface junkie, there’s never been any doubt in my mind that it’s the words that matter. (Besides, it’s my understanding that you can read an e-book in any typeface you want, so long as it’s loaded onto the reader. Think of the unlimited possibilities for aesthetic tinkering!)
Perhaps the bottom line is that I’m open, at least in theory, to the possibility of abandoning the book-as-art-object, just as I’ve already taken the first step toward abandoning the album-as-art-object. Other people may not be so open to either possibility. I have a number of over-50 friends who say they don’t read “About Last Night” because they “can’t” read text on a screen–which means, of course, that they find it inconvenient. Not me. I don’t read books on my iBook, but I do read virtually all magazine and newspaper articles that way, as well as the blogs that now occupy a fast-growing part of my reading time. It would never occur to me to print out an article (or a blog entry) and read it in the bathtub. Bathtubs are for biographies.
Which reminds me of the informal industry-wide test of the viability of e-book readers: when somebody makes a reader that you can hold in one hand easily and drop in the tub without incident, the major publishers will start getting interested. I think that’s just about right–and I think they’re bound to get interested sooner or later, probably sooner, the same way the record companies have finally figured out that on-line music is here to stay.
Yes, the printed book is a beautiful object, “elegant” in both the aesthetic and mathematical senses, and its invention was a pivotal moment in the history of Western culture. But it is also a technology–a means, not an end.