Set in stone

Technological progress is a curious thing and brings out strange reactions in people. Some people adopt a new technology just because it is new; others eschew it for the exact same reason. I aspire to take the middle ground – appreciating technology when it is useful and somewhat proven, instead of being an early adopter.

At the weekend, I found myself in a discussion about books and their future …

As I have written about before [here and here] I am very keen on e-books and now read almost exclusively using this medium. I still like “real” books, but, for everyday reading, I think they have done their time.

In the town where I live there used to be an independent bookshop. The owners decided to retire and were unable to find a buyer for the business, so it closed down a couple of years ago. A group of people thought that the town should have a bookshop and decided to establish a co-operative shop. This runs much like any other small business, except that it has a large number of shareholders, each of whom own an equal sized, but small, share. My wife and I are among that number.

At the weekend, I had been participating in a historic walking tour in the town, which ended with tea and cake at the shop, which was how I found myself debating the pros and cons of e-books vs “real” books. The couple, with whom I was discussing this matter, were convinced that e-books are a passing fad and that they are totally impractical. They had some interesting arguments against e-books:

“They do not feel and smell so nice.” I agree, but I do not really use either of those senses to read.

“Their battery can run out.” Also true, particularly with an iPad, from which I only get 10 hours or so use from a charge. But I am a heavy user of my Kindle, which only needs charging about once a month and gives me adequate warning.

“They are not flexible – you cannot fold them up like paper.” I feel that flexibility is not an attribute that most books gain a lot of benefit from. I do not find my Kindle’s [mechanical] inflexibility a problem. I can, however, easily envisage more “floppy” devices being available in the future.

The argument that they did not pose was “You cannot lend e-books or pass them on when you are finished.” That is currently true, but it is a business model issue, which is not intrinsic to the technology. Consumer demand will result in this evolving, IMHO.

I, of course, had a whole bunch of arguments in favor of e-books: compact and easy to carry hundreds of books; easy searching and place-marking; simple, low-cost production benefits new authors. The list goes on.

But then the produced their killer argument: “Paper has served us very well in one form or another for hundreds or even thousands of years. Why do we need to replace it?” Nicely played, I thought.

In a way they were right. Paper has been around a long time in various forms – papyrus, parchment and vellum all preceding modern paper. It has done a good job and I do not think that we will be abandoning it any time soon. I suggested that we imagine the world when paper was first introduced …

There were, undoubtedly, objectors to this new-fangled technology. They would argue in favor of carving text onto stone tablets. I can imagine they might suggest: “Paper just does not last – it soon yellows and ink fades. Stone lasts for ever.” “Paper is susceptible to burning and damp. It is just not as resilient as stone.” “Stone tablets were good enough for Moses.” “Paper is just not practical and will never catch on.”

Fast forwarding to the present day, people still carve text onto stone. In fact, a friend of mine has recently been on a course to learn the skill. We still use stone tablets when we really want something to last – or at least have the appearance of permanence. Building names and gravestones are good examples. In the same way, paper will have it’s place. Paper books have an intrinsically pleasurable “feel” to them, which means that they will persist, particularly as premium products.

But, trust me on this one: e-books are here to stay.

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