There is a book in my library called The Gutenbery Elegies (by Sven Birkerts; Faber and Faber, 1994). Its title continues with "The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age". Its thirteenth chapter is titled "The Death of Literature". It is not my intention here to comment on this particular book but to hold it up as an example of one way to view the revolution that is happening around us. This is the eBook revolution - the apparent stampede to make our reading material more portable and accessible by taking it online and giving it a local habitation and a name in an eReader. Some fear the change and adopt a suitably elegiac pose, to which some people just naturally incline. Others see dollar signs and lots of them. Yet others, typically the Publishers, see a precipice before them and, like the nude bungee-jumper, look unsure about whether or not they should jump even though they realize that they have no choice.
Personally, I see that the coming eBook Revolution as an undiluted good although there are caveats that need to be noted if this revolution is to achieve its full potential. First off, we need to be careful about feeling overly nostalgic about our beloved hardcopy books and the almost mystical place they have held throughout history. Or perhaps more precisely, we should look closely at what it was about hardcopy books that made them so successful - and then we should consider how we can achieve similar goals with eBooks and perhaps even improve upon them.
Another thing we should keep firmly in mind is that there is no small amount of fiction behind the mythology of the book - and in particular that it is somehow imbued with innate quality and intrinsic value. Let's be clear here - most books printed throughout history have been trash of the worst kind. Spend a little time plumbing through the products of the press during any given year - say 1704 in London - and you will be cleansed of any illusion about the quality of what has typically been printed. There were gems, to be sure, but they stand out against a distinctly dull background. Most books, indeed an overwhelming majority of them, do not in all honesty deserve the dignity of print.
And there are limitations associated with books that are very real. Just recently, I was returning from California and I was waiting to board my eastern bound red-eye flight. I decided I would get a head start on my chosen book for this leg of the journey. Within a few minutes, a feeling of dread welled up as I realized that this book, an expensive imprint from a university press, was utter rubbish - the worst type of academic claptrap. As luck would have it, just as this realization broke in upon me, I raised my eyes to see a young man whip out his Kindle. I felt like a relic from an earlier age and in a real sense I was. That I was returning from a conference where I was ranting about the merits of intelligent digital content just made my predicament all the more laughable. This young man would be able to read whatever he felt like - whether that was poetry or pulp fiction. If something else caught his fancy, he could order it right there and right then. And it was late enough that the airport bookstore in SFO (which is better than most) was closed - I know because, in my desperate state, I had checked. I was either going to grin and bear some professor pandering to a tiny circle of colleagues or I was going to need to indulge in the free alcohol that comes with a business class ticket.
In this scenario, the eBook was the undisputed victor. Its portability and supreme compactness made it possible for this young traveller to peruse a veritable ocean of material. He could spend some of his time scanning news stories (without the need to use a moist towelette to clean newspaper ink from his fingers when he was done). He could also spend some of his time reading something edifying or something entertaining. The choice was his. Meanwhile I was smoldering with envy. I had become a practical enthusiast of eBooks, and not just a theoretical one.
Undoubtedly, we are just at the outset of this eBook revolution and there is a lot of room left for improvement. As my friend Maxwell Hoffmann has touched upon, in a recent article called How a Taste of Kindle Reader for Blackberry made me Hunger for More, there is an obvious step that the new digital domain should allow us to take - towards a more active, and more social, way of reading. This is a dimension opened by the eBook that is breathtaking in its potential.
And then we have the petty wars around proprietary control, the attempt by some purveyors of eBooks to trap their customers into using their platform, and only their platform. Hopefully this will provide the hacker community with something constructive to do as this is an evil that must be killed in the cradle.
One of the things that made hardcopy books so successful was their persistence. Compared to many things, books are actually quite difficult to destroy (unlike something like papyrus scrolls or digital backup tapes - both of which burn like fireworks). Several of our most treasured masterpieces survived only as a single leather-bound copy that is fire-singed around the edges.
When people purchase books, then, we should consider what it is they are doing. If it is a disposable beach-read they are looking for, something analogous to a bound copy of a TV show, people will tend to opt for a trip to the local public library. But people also purchase books, and lots of them. I am convinced that one of the things that these people are purchasing is persistence. The books become part of their physical space, and thus part of their mental space. My Graduate supervisor was an almost stereotypical Oxford Don who would talk and think by reaching into stacks of books or ascending his bookcases. His rooms, ensconced in a tower in Balliol college, were an extension of his memory - prodigious as it was. In truth, my library, which is embarrassingly expansive, serves the same purpose - as it did when I plucked The Gutenberg Elegies from the cherry-wood shelf.
So we look at eBooks and the one thing that seems clear is that together with their portability, eBooks must also provide a persistence of access that ensures people can build mental landscapes from the resources they have acquired. People seem to understand that this landscape of resources will accumulate over time and they will continue to contribute to it if it indeed holds persistent value for them. If the industry wants people to spend money on eBooks then it is critical that they ensure that part of what the industry is offering is persistence of access - and this should be perpetual. And going further, once a work is licensed then the customer should look forward to that work being available to them in formats and on platforms that will appear in the future and that we have not yet imagined. And to pick up on the points that Maxwell raises, these customers should be able to actively enrich the materials they have assembled - adding annotations and networks of connections - and to be able to share these with their colleagues and friends and even the whole world. If all these things come together, then the world of the eBook will be a better one at least from the perspective of those things we looked to the venerable printed book to provide.
Will the migration online actually spell the end of the printed book? I severely doubt it. In fact, I expect that, in a counter-intuitive way, the eBook revolution will spawn more printed books not less. And again if the stars align fortuitously then publishers will see that the eBook marketplace will help sift the wheat from the chaff and thereby determine which works should be carefully typeset, printed, distributed and showcased at the front of bookshops. In many ways, I see the eBook revolution providing us with a communal process for determining what books might merit the dignity of print, or at least what books might make the investment in printing a profitable venture.