While the rest of the world crosses their fingers waiting for the zombie apocalypse, the real old-school nerds await the true end of the human race: the inevitable rise of the machines. Technology is quickly replacing everything from analog media to actual face-to-face human interaction. It’s likely only a matter of time until we make even ourselves obsolete. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy some good reads before we are consumed in the fires of rogue AI, embrace full transhumanism, and become one with the machine. But what format to use?
So the question I get asked at this point in my life more than any other is “what is that thing?”. The thing in question is my Nook e-reader, which I received as a gift last year. What inevitably follows is a full-on discussion on what the hell an e-reader is, why someone would want one, what the features and advantages are, and the occasional shaking of fists as skeptics bemoan what they perceive to be the death of the traditional book.
“Why do you hate America!?”
Given the interest in this topic, I’m going to go ahead and discuss the pros and cons of both formats. Let’s start with a good old-fashioned book. One of my co-workers walked up to me on my lunch break and said to me ”don’t you miss the feel of a real book in your hands?”. And he’s not wrong. I practically grew up in the library. It was a magical place that had a look, a smell, a sound, and an intangible aura all its own. And you know what? It still kind of does. So much information all stored in one place, thousands of books just waiting for some intrepid literary explorer to pick them up and take them home for absorption. I still take my son there almost weekly, and every now and then I pick up a classic for myself too. So a book in my hands just feels natural. It’s a real physical thing, not some file to be downloaded and deleted as if it never existed in the first place.
Reading “Fahrenheit 451” loses some of its symbolic significance when the title no longer means what it means. And the image of a woman choosing to be burnt to death with her beloved book collection rather than stand aside and watch wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic if the books were replaced with a cop running a magnet over her hard drive or smashing her iPad with a hammer.
Yup. Definitely better.
Books are something we can all relate to, and to many of us they are almost like totems or talismans to be proudly displayed on bookshelves as a sort of statement of who we are. And in many ways, we are what we have read. I believe that paper was mankind’s greatest invention as it allowed us a simple, convenient way to immortalize knowledge and pass it down indefinitely without a single word being lost. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why there is resistance to technology threatening to render something so entwined with human history and culture obsolete.
While an e-reader may be a conversation starter now due to the format’s relative youth, that will soon pass. But what will always be a conversation starter is a book. Leaving out a big coffee table book full of gorgeous, glossy, full-page pictures begging to be picked up and leafed through is something that can’t really be replicated electronically. And how many conversations have been started and interpersonal relationships begun by somebody happening by and seeing the cover of a book somebody else is reading and taking an interest?
That social aspect is another legacy that can’t be replicated by e-readers. How easy is it to hand a book over to a friend to read? Pretty damn. But with e-books you need them to bring their tablet or whatever over or you have to convert the file and email it (if you even remember to do it) or worry about any number of potential headaches, and that’s assuming the person you want to loan the book to even has an e-reader. Just handing somebody a book to take home with them; that’s simple and easy.
Then there are used bookstores, where for a few bucks you could take home an armful of adventures. I don’t believe there are many of these to be found these days, but I have fond memories of looking out the window on family trips looking for used bookstores and then begging my parents to stop for a round of low-cost impulse buys and discussions with friendly clerks before resuming our trip.
The combination of paper and ink may be one of the simplest human inventions, but it’s been nearly as long-lived as the wheel, and for good reason. It’s practically the foundation of our entire civilization. Books are real, relatable, physical things we can own and give out at will. They are and have always been part of the human experience. But time marches on…..
Damn it, technology! Is there anything you can’t do?
While there is obviously a case to be made for the purity of tradition, there are a great many things to be said for the digital format. First off, there’s the fact that files don’t age or wear in the traditional sense is a plus. How many of your old favorite paperbacks have pages falling out of them at this point? Files can be stored on hard drives and cloud drives and reformatted ad infinitum, making them pretty much immortal in a way physical objects simply are not. And then there’s the horror of buying a nice big, shiny hardcover graphic novel and opening it to look at all the pretty pictures minutes before the resident toddler walks over, slaps his hand in the middle of the page, and then drags it back to himself, bringing half of the beautiful sheet of comic art nirvana with it (true story, in case you couldn’t tell).
One of the biggest reasons people don’t invest in e-readers is the cost. A negative is that on top of the initial investment in the hardware, a lot of e-books are not significantly cheaper than their physical counterparts. This is pretty much inexcusable seeing that it obviously costs less to send a file than it does to print, bind, and ship full books so a price reduction is a very natural expectation. But I do believe that that annoyance is partially offset by two words: public domain.
Public domain, of course, means that nobody really owns it anymore; it belongs to the world. However, that does not stop book publishers from selling the book at full price.
Very, very sneaky, sir.
With e-readers, you can buy the complete works of legendary authors like Poe, Wells, and Lovecraft (to name a few personal favorites) for next to nothing. That is a lot of reading and it would likely cost you more to buy physical copies of their complete works than the cost of an e-reader. The public domain alone is enough reason to at least give digital reading a shot.
Then there are the features. On a Nook or Kindle, for example, you can highlight any word with a touch of your finger and see its definition. You can digitally “dog-ear” favorite pages, highlight the best passages which then go on a list so you can access your favorite quotes all at once (Kindle also tracks the most highlighted segments among its readers). You can even change the text size and font to your liking. All very cool.
A plus for e-reading in general, but a negative for specialized e-readers is the fact that our corporate overlords at Apple and the like are insidiously combining all devices into superdevices such as the iPhone and iPad. In fact, the reason I received my Nook as a gift was because a relative bought it for himself and then realized there was nothing it could do that his iPad/Phone/Touch couldn’t do with a Kindle or Nook app. Now, if you don’t own any of those and all you want is a reader then a specialized device is much cheaper, but with Apple’s near-ubiquitous devices doing it all and then some, I suspect the e-reader hardware market may be wiped out.
So technical and practical aspects aside, I’m going to discuss the creative impact of electronic media on modern literature for a minute. In the past, few people had the means to mass produce and market book. That meant aspiring authors had to beg and borrow while attempting to sell a book to a bunch of corporate publishers who would typically either reject them outright and send them off to starve in the gutter or suck the very life out of them and their art, work them for every penny they were worth, then move on. And what happened to those poor authors, you ask?
This is an actual picture from inside a Random House Inc. facility.
With digital distribution quickly becoming the norm in the industry, the costs of doing business have been greatly reduced and we are now likely approaching a golden age for independent authors. Without a big publisher to spam the mainstream media with your book, you may never make that J.K. Rowling money, but you can rest assured that you will always have a way to distribute your work to those who want it without necessarily having to go through a major publisher. And without corporate interests jacking up the price, the cost of giving an unknown author’s work a shot is much lower, so it’s a win-win for independent authors and readers both.
Like it or not, technology moves forward, formats change, and our culture adapts to it, for better or worse. While I still purchase and lend the occasional physical novel, get most of my comics by mail, and agree with people who espouse the virtues of the traditional book, there’s seldom anything of practical value to be gained by attempting to hold back the tide. Digital distribution and consumption are here and they are replacing physical media.
There’s part of me that’s happy to see that books are going to be the last physical format to go. They were here long before musical recordings were possible or film was even a concept and have remained largely unchanged over the centuries, and in a way, writing is a more flexible art form than any other, and older. It just seems fitting that after discs have been replaced with files and are practically worthless, there will still be book collections, and they will still be just as valuable if not more so. But in the meantime, rather than fighting against progress, I’m going to go ahead and prepare for the future.
Do you think they’ll like it?