Some of you may have read my Wall Street Journal column about the return of the e-book, in which I reported on the Sony Reader and speculated on the possible effects of the e-book on the culture of reading and writing. (If you didn’t see the column, it’s here.) In that column I made a point of saying that eventual popular acceptance of the e-book was inevitable:
So will it fly? I don’t know. Still, I’m certain that something like the Sony Reader will catch on, if not this year then in a short time. The phenomenal success of the iPod strongly suggests that many, perhaps most, consumers are ready to start buying digital books on the Web and storing and reading them electronically.
I did this for three reasons. One was rhetorical: I thought it would make the column more effective to take the coming of the e-book for granted. One was practical: my “Sightings” columns are only 850 words long, and I preferred to devote my space to speculating on the long-term effects of the e-book rather than taking the time to explain why I thought it would become popular. And one was a simple matter of honesty: that’s really what I think.
I got an e-mail the other day from my friend Rick Brookhiser, author of many fine books about the founding fathers (I especially like this one), in which he begged to differ:
e-book = iPod? Same solution, different problem, so maybe not.
The iPod created a universe of immediately available songs–not in the order the Beatles laid the album out; not with the dumb songs included (don’t like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”? Skip it!). Glenn Gould’s paradise had arrived, as you wrote in the Teachout Reader.
The DVD does the same thing for movies. Watch that car chase fifteen times!
But, unlike albums/CDs or movies, readers already enjoy immediate availability, in the form of pages. This was the book’s great advance over the scroll, and the reciting bard. You can skip ahead, go back, read one paragraph over and over, etc. If you had been alive in the dark ages, or whenver scribes began writing in books, you would have commented on it in Ye Teachoute Reader (Gutenberg made reproduction faster).
The e-book will NOT increase immediate availability, because you must hit a control of some sort to move. Even a thumb click or a finger tap is as much of an effort as a page turn. (The e-book you showed doesn’t even have two pages open at once, though that presumably is fixable.)
The great gain of the e-book is having several thousand books in one little machine. But apart from the psychotically inattentive–a large audience, given computers and the tempo of TV editing–people read one book at a time, or at most two or three. In that situation the e-book provides no advantages, or few.
What e-books will make wonderful is research–Grove, the encyclopedia, and all those bound volumes of the Atlantic Monthly may well be killed by them.
If your prophecy is fulfilled, and all books are sent to a landfill, in five years some geek in Bangalore will announce breathlessly his newest discovery–the printout, bound together with glue for easy live-ware accessibility.
These are all good points. The printed book, as I said in my column, is an “elegant” technology, meaning that it solves a great many problems in an attractive, simple, and economical way, and e-books will not catch on if they don’t solve the same problems with comparable elegance. But assuming they do, here are some of the further advantages of the e-book:
– It will allow you to buy books without going to a brick-and-mortar store and have them delivered to your computer more or less instantaneously.
– In theory, it will give you immediate access to a vastly larger number of books than even amazon.com can provide.
– You’ll be able to carry dozens of books with you wherever you go (unlike Rick, I think this is one of the e-book’s biggest draws).
– Books in bulk are heavy and awkward and take up a huge amount of space. E-books take up no physical “space” at all, thus freeing up wall and storage space–a major consideration for apartment-dwellers and other people with good-sized personal libraries. Yes, books do furnish a room, but I’d rather furnish my living room with more art–and I’d be more than happy not to have to box up my thousand-odd books the next time I move to a new apartment.
In addition, the e-book is a technology so powerful and far-reaching in its implications that I’m sure it will offer countless additional advantages I can’t even begin to foresee. Scott Walters, who blogs at Theatre Ideas, suggested two of them in this e-mail he sent after reading my column:
As a 47-year-old recent convert to the iPod (which I use for listening to books on tape from Audible.com), I am fascinated by the new Sony e-book hardware. As a college professor, I can see all kinds of opportunities. For instance, what if students could download all of their textbooks to their Sony e-book–no more huge backpacks filled with a dozen heavy textbooks! Also, it might help us disconnect from the pirates running current textbook publishers. I published a textbook with McGraw-Hill that is about 120 pages and lists for $30, which is ridiculous! I would certainly consider pulling the book from the publisher and selling it myself via download. This could be a real solution for the student!
All of which serves as a reminder that the coming of the e-book will trigger the law of unintended consequences. That’s what I was getting at in my column:
Best-selling novelists, for instance, will soon be in a position to “publish” their own books, pocketing all the profits–but so will niche-market authors whose books don’t sell in large enough quantities to interest major publishers.
Might the e-book make the writing of serious literary fiction more economically viable? Consider the experience of Maria Schneider, the jazz composer whose CDs are sold exclusively on her Web site, www.mariaschneider.com. Ms. Schneider uses ArtistShare, a new Web-based technology that makes it easier for musicians to sell self-produced recordings online. Not only did she win a Grammy for her first ArtistShare release, “Concert in the Garden,” but she kept all the proceeds as well. Several other well-known jazz musicians, including the guitarist Jim Hall and the trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, have since signed up with ArtistShare, which frees them from the need to compromise with money-conscious record-company executives. Will e-books have a similarly liberating effect on authors? I wouldn’t be surprised.
I’m not saying, by the way, that the unintended consequences of the coming of the e-book will all be pleasant or desirable. Our Girl and I went shopping the other day at a well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore in Chicago. I bought three books for myself and a belated Christmas present for OGIC, and enjoyed the experience immensely. As we drove home afterward, we chatted about how delightful it is to browse the shelves of a good bookstore. But is it delightful enough to survive the coming of the e-book? I doubt it. To be sure, I had a lovely time–but it was the first time I’d done any serious in-person book-browsing in nearly a year. I now buy virtually all of my books online.
As I wrote in the Journal:
Yes, I miss the bookstores of my youth, and I’m sure I’ll miss the handsomely bound volumes that fill the shelves in my apartment as well (though I won’t miss dusting them, or toting them around by the half-dozen whenever I go on vacation). The printed book is a beautiful object, “elegant” in both the aesthetic and mathematical senses of the word, and its invention was a pivotal moment in the history of Western culture. But it is also a technology–a means, not an end. Like all technologies, it has a finite life span, and its time is almost up.
Am I right? We’ll see–soon.