27 April 2009

(e-)books of the future

In the not-so-distant future, there will be a generation that grows up with e-books as the rule rather than the exception. No one can predict the future (weren’t we all suppose to have jetpacks by now? Or at least flying cars?), but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. What will that world look like?

In his article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write” author Steven Johnson speculates, “there is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?” He goes on to compare the possibilities of the e-book to the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Pre-Gutenberg, the Bible was handwritten in Latin, keeping the knowledge, and therefore the power, in the hands of the church. Gutenberg’s Bible, due to the mass production (yes, mass production means just over 180 copies...it's all relative) was cheaper and was also printed in the common language, making it much more accessible to the everyday person. Johnson writes, “think about what happened because of the printing press: The ability to duplicate, and make permanent, ideas that were contained in books created a surge in innovation that the world had never seen before.” With e-books there is not only the ability not only to search, but also to link. New ideas could be just a few clicks away, increasing the dissemination of knowledge. Johnson admits this can be trouble given the ease of having another option just a click away, playing to “the finite of 21st-century resources: attention.” He writes, “As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas -- will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.”

I think it all comes down to how you define a book, and more importantly, how you define an e-book. Are they the same thing, but in different formats? How much of a difference does format make if the content is the same? Is the content truly the same if it’s in a different format? Remember the episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” about Frank’s love of his jazz records? Ray’s gift of the same albums on CD just wasn’t the same. The format made a huge difference in this case. What do you think? Would "The works of Dickens" (only $4.79) be the same read on Kindle as opposed to flipping through the pages of a heavy hardbound book? What about a tattered and dog-eared mass market paperback copy of “Great Expectations” with notes in the margins? How would a classic compare to a newer title, like “Just Take My Heart” by Mary Higgins Clark, currently at the top of the New York Times Best Seller list?

Plus, It’s not like books these days are hand-scribed illuminated manuscripts painstakingly crafted by monks. Books are mass-produced, even in small runs. (Check out how things were done in 1947.) Yes, some thought goes into the layout of the book; the fonts, the pagination, the cover art, all are designed. But most of that design can translate to an e-book format. Fiction seems to come in three standard sizes depending on binding, hardback, trade paperback, and mass market paperback, so translating the design to an e-book reader with a similar rectangular proportion would not be an issue. However, look around a bookstore or a library and you’ll see all sorts of sizes of books. How would size, big or small, translate to an e-book format? As of right now, Kindle is limited “16 shades of gray” so children’s picture books are out, along with any other book where color is not optional (think art, photography, interior decorating…). And no e-book will ever be able to duplicate the tactile features of board books (think fuzzy, soft, built-in finger puppets…) for babies and toddlers. Plus, they’d be too expensive to be drooled and gummed on. What about textbooks? With Kindle, you can search and mark passages, and it’s so much lighter. Think of all the space you could save in your backpack! Cookbooks could be interesting. Are you neat enough to use a Kindle cookbook to prepare a meal?

It doesn’t seem like e-books in their current state are particularly child-friendly, but I can see the appeal to teen readers. (Tangent: there seems to be some argument if teens are actually reading, despite video games, TV, movies, the Internet and all the other options out there. And as pointed out by Liz Gunnison's WIRED review "...The Kindle is not going to make a reader out of a nonreader.") Today’s teens have grown up tech savvy, with computers, iPods, cell phones and other technology seen as a necessity instead of a luxury. (Don’t believe me? Go to wherever teens hang out and count how many do not have a cell phone. It will be much easier than counting those who do.) With their comfort level, teens are in the perfect place to be early adopters of technology such as an e-book reader, if only it wasn’t so expensive to be an early adopter. At $359, Amazon’s Kindle is a bit pricey, but it is on PC Magazine’s Top Techy Gifts for Teens…perhaps the perfect present for the grad that already has a car, laptop, Wii, iPhone or all of the above. Besides, after the one-time investment in the reader, the books are a cheaper than the print edition, and leave you more room on your shelves for your trophies and participation certificates.

As for the future, I hope books in their current physical format stick around, though I am intrigued by the e-book idea. But I’m still waiting for my jetpack.

1 comment:

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