Thursday, December 11, 2008

On digital book readers and the future of the book

For decades folks have been lamenting the impending death of the book, and plateauing book sales in recent years have reinforced these fears. New technology like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader are attempting to be for books what the iPod has become for music. But it's doubtful that these devices will replace print books anytime soon. I just came across Christine Rosen's article "People of the Screen," and she makes these observations about the new Amazon Kindle:
Despite Kindle’s emphasis on accessibility—get any book, anywhere, instantly—this is true only if you can afford to own the device that allows you to read it. You can’t share the books you’ve read on your Kindle unless you hand the device over to a friend to borrow. There are other drawbacks to the Kindle, more emotional than practical. Unlike a regular book, where the weight of the book transfers from your right hand to your left as you progress, with the Kindle you have no sense of where you are in the book by its feel. It doesn’t smell like a book. Nor does the clean, digital Kindle bear the impressions of previous readers, the smudges and folds and scribbles and forgotten treasures tucked amid the pages—markings of the man-made artifact.

. . . when you use a Kindle, you are not merely a reader—you are also a consumer. Indeed, everything about the device is intended to keep you in a posture of consumption. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has admitted, the Kindle “isn’t a device, it’s a service.”

Anyone who has read a book to a toddler knows that one experience with an e-reader would yield more interest in the buttons and the scroll wheel than the story itself.
I'm inclined to agree with James Gleick's NY Times recent article, where he says, "It is significant that one says book lover and music lover and art lover but not record lover or CD lover or, conversely, text lover." Most of us in the book publishing industry love not just the content and the ideas of the books we publish, but also the physicality of the actual books. The physical book provides tactile reference points - we remember where something is in a book by how far into the book it is, or whether it's on the upper left-hand page or near the end of a chapter. There are visual cues in a physical book that are lost in an electronic reading device.

Gleick observes that for mere information retrieval, electronic access has already surpassed print books - hence the rise of Wikipedia and the eclipse of physical print editions of Encyclopedia Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. And so CD-ROMs and digital versions of biblical references, dictionaries and commentaries make a lot of sense, when the main need is searchability and retrieval. But for the meditative experience of thoughtful reading, physical books are still the standard.

I still worry if my beloved book publishing industry will evaporate the way newspapers are dying off or how CD sales have fallen off a cliff. Thomas Friedman says that bailing out the Detroit auto industry right now is "the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. . . . It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet." So that's a good word of caution regarding the future of book publishing (or any industry).

Yet I'm encouraged by the dozens of comments on Eugene Cho's blog when he asked people to mention the books that have influenced them the most. People are reading, and not just stuff on screen. I'm hopeful that people will continue to be book readers, and that Christians continue to live out their heritage as people of the book.


Pilgrim said...

I understand what you're saying, but doesn't Christians being people of the book refer to their reverence for the content of the Bible, not necessarily its form? Because for many years Christians had no direct access to the Bible as a book. Maybe it started as scrolls and copied manuscripts. Many were illiterate and depended on priests to read it aloud to them.

Julie said...

a couple of random thoughts -

I remember writing a paper at Wheaton on how our theology would change if we returned to reading scripture in scroll fashion digitally. at the time it didn't seem that likely...

and have you read any of Jasper Fforde's novels? One of his Thursday Next books focused on an evil conspiracy to replace books with an electronic reader.

Al Hsu said...

Julana - For sure, the emphasis is on the content of the book and not the physical book itself. I don't mean to imply that Christians were tied to what we think of today as printed, bound books. But there's certainly a long tradition of Christians promoting literacy, reading, education, etc. because of the importance of books and Bibles and all that.

Julie - I've not read any Jasper Fforde. I'll have to look him up.

Adel Thalos said...

Hi Al,

Thank you for your thoughtful blog entry. I agree with you on many of your fine points. But I believe there is much more to be lost than the tactile aspect of reading books.

I would refer you to one of the finest books I have read on the subject entitled "The Gutenberg Elegies: the fate of reading in an electronic age", by Sven Birkerts. This is an absolute must read for anyone who loves books.

I did a short posting on the book on my blog here:

Pilgrim said...

Alan Jacobs has written some interesting posts on this issue over at Text Patterns. He's alternating between his Kindle and hard copies.

Micah said...

As a book lover who is also a Kindle owner (and a huge fan after four months), I think most of the criticisms of the Kindle and other e-reader devices are legitimate, but trumped by the sheer convenience of the device and what it offers. I challenge all the naysayers to give it a try. It may be an expensive trial, but for me it was a worthwhile one. Especially for frequent travelers who like to read, having a small library with you everywhere you go is incredible. And, since I currently live in China where it's not so easy to get many English language books (esp current releases), the Kindle is very helpful because I can download on Amazon and be reading in a matter of minutes.

It's also a lot cheaper than buying anywhere except a used bookstore (which is probably about the same price but not significantly cheaper). Of course the library would be the cheapest option, but is not feasible here and not convenient for those constantly on the go.

At first, when reading on the device, I did feel strange, missing the tactile sense and experience of reading a book. But after I got through one or two titles, I realized that I hardly notice anymore. Instead, I am thankful that I have a very small, very light "book" with me anytime I go anywhere, which saves me having to carry around heavy and bulky books (which I finish and then have nowhere to put).

That said, there are some things that I still love reading in print (The Economist, for instance). I thought at first this might be about the pictures or layout, but now I don't think so, since The Economist, though it does have some charts, is not illustration-heavy. So in some ways I do still miss the experience.

On balance, the Kindle has dramatically increased my reading, and probably even my spend (for which Amazon is, I'm sure, grateful). I love it and what it gives me, and I don't think I'll be buying any books anytime soon - I hate the thought of carrying or storing them in my current, semi-nomadic existence.

Thanks for the post... =)