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Touch Magic

January 12, 2010

For the past two days Paul and Jodi have discussed the merits and shortcomings of eBooks, and what their future may be.

They made several fine points. Paul’s rundown of the difficulties with and backwards-compatibility of constantly evolving formats struck a chord, as did Jodi’s breakdown of the difficulties of pricing the various formats. But what stuck with me the most was a quote, hidden among their larger points, from the the VP of Amazon Kindle stuck with me:

Ian Freed, the Amazon Kindle vice-president, believes that the success of Kindle heralds the end for printed books, and has been quoted as saying “The only question is does it take three years, five years or 20 years?”

I’m not sure what surprised me the most about this quote: the absurdity, the audacity or the naiveté.

I suppose the quote could easily be written off as narcissistic self-promotion. After all, it’s in his company’s interest to make people believe that the paper book is on it’s way out. I, however, don’t think that it was purely self-promotion (the narcissism is hard to argue). Every time I hear some executive trumpet the end of the paper book, I wonder how someone so critically out of touch with readers can climb into a position of influence within the industry.

Ink and paper holds a critical, historical, mythical place in human history. One of the benchmarks of ancient societies was whether they developed written language, and the use of paper takes the society up another notch. Guttenberg’s press, and the bible it made possible, ushered in a transformation of the world and the way we learn.

These are not subtle milestones in the history of the world. These are bold lines in the time line of the Earth—before them is darkness, after there is light.

But aside from that, somewhere deep within our cores, we understand that there is something special, something magical, about something you can hold and touch. There is a magic involved in taking a thought and making it real and eternal by using ink and paper—a magic that’s lost when it’s recorded in electrons, ones and zeroes.

I’m no technophobe. I appreciate technology, and use quite a bit if it. But I also understand it’s limitations. It is not universal. It is not eternal. It is fragile. I understand that being able to carry a thousand books in my pocket, also means that I can lose a thousand books by dropping a small electronic device.

E-books and readers certainly have their place, especially in a future where we may want to take millions of books into space, or deep beneath the oceans, but the day they replace paper books is a long, long way off.

An eBook reader may be cool…

…but it’s not magic.

Besides, how do you get an author to sign a copy of their eBook?

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The title of this post is borrowed from a fine collection of essays on fantasy and folklore by Jane Yolen.
  1. adampb permalink
    January 12, 2010 4:43 am

    I suspect that publishers need to be at the forefront of the revolution and the bastions of tradition. As a teacher I see that each successive generation becomes more immersed in technology as the means by which they communicate and learn. These digital natives do not see the movement of books from paper to screen as necessarily a bad thing. At times I feel like a Luddite, but see the need to educate my students about the tools that they use to learn, which will perhaps include an ebook reader in the near future.
    The hyperbole suggests it is the ebook reader at the expense of paper, but the practicalities recommend the parallel development and success of both formats.

  2. January 12, 2010 10:13 pm

    And what happens when you end up on a desert island with no electricity or extra batteries? Give me paper & ink! The ultimate reader.

  3. January 13, 2010 3:27 am

    I agree with the sentiments expressed here, but am a little unsure because of one big change that has already come about. I remember when personal computers first came out a number of writers said, nothing would replace for them the experience of writing with paper and pen. Yet now, the facility of writing with the computer seems to have won the day. I suppose this is a false analogy as the reading process itself doesn’t change according to whether you’re reading a proper book or an eBook, but I remain wary. I hope it never happens, but maybe, one day…

  4. January 13, 2010 6:45 am

    As I commented the other day, my fears on this front is compatibility (backward and forward) and stability. Batteries have a short life span, hardware has a short life span. If the eBook is to take over from paper books, I’d like to see EVERY book digitized and one, single standard developed so that we don’t have to worry about losing books in the future.

    Whether I like the technology or not (I do NOT like it currently but that’s because it hurts my eyes to read the tiny screens), I accept that it may very well be the future. I just want to be sure that it is a future that is sustainable before I invest heavily in it as a consumer.

    Oh, and my digital signature is cool… if you have the right version of the software to display it.

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