Saturday, December 10, 2011

E-books: Mistaking Content for the Container

On Nathan Bransford's blog, he often opines about the growth of e-books and the future of the "traditional book." And people always complain – rightly, I think – that e-books "just aren't the same." It got me thinking, and here's my take on the matter. I was a little surprised by my conclusion.

A newspaper where I worked many, many years ago, was converting from typewriters to computers. We had an early text editing system made up of primitive video display terminals hooked to a big mainframe. We thought we were in the future.

Inside each of these VDTs was a small speaker, maybe two inches in diameter. Every time you pressed a key, the speaker emitted a little "click." Or maybe it was a clack. Hard to recall now.

This was because the hidebound old traditionalists in the news business, the older reporters and the editors, had been working on typewriters all their lives and couldn’t deal with a machine that didn't make a noise when you hit the key. It made them nervous, edgy. So these little speakers clicked and clacked comfortingly. Those of us a bit younger (whippersnappers!) found the whole thing amusing.

The old farts (like I am now) grumbled that they weren't computer jockeys and they weren't typesetters. They said their job was writing stories or editing them, then sending the typed copy off to the composing room where the words would get set into type. They objected to the blurring of that boundary. They didn't think they're job had anything to do with using a computer.

But as time passed, people got used to the new "normal." Computers became more ubiquitous in newsrooms and in our lives. And one day one of the younger copy editors grew tired of listening to the pointless, artificial clicks coming from the VDTs. She went around the newsroom with a pica pole (another obsolete newsroom tool) and gave every VDT a "speakerectomy," cutting the wires. No more clicks! The units stopped making noise but continued to function just fine. Because of course, the purpose of the system was not to produce clicks. It was to get copy to flow from the reporter to the editor to the press.

E-books are something like that. Some – maybe a lot – of people talk about how they love the tactile experience of reading, the smell of a book, the feel, the crackle of the page. The heft of a book. They can't accept the idea of reading without those parts of the experience. I'm one of them. And I am the first to agree that a book is a desirable object in its own right. There's something about a bookshelf crowded with volumes that gives pleasure for its own sake.

But the function of a book is not to smell a certain way or feel a certain way or look cool on a shelf. The function of a book is to convey information from the author's brain to the readers', whether a novel or a textbook, an adventure story or a political treatise. Just like the clicks in the primitive VDTs, the tactile experience is secondary. It's altogether separate from the actual function of the book. It has nothing to do with reading.

When we make that distinction between e-books and traditional books, we're mistaking the content for the container. And the simple fact is, e-books have it all over traditional books in performing the actual function of a book.

Yes, I own lots of books Before we moved from Oregon to the tropics, I had to winnow our collection, getting rid of almost 3,000 volumes, and that stills leaves me with about 2,000. They are, unfortunately, still in storage in Oregon and I want them. I want them NOW. I want my copy of "Treasure Island" with the Wyeth illustrations, and my autographed "Peter and the Star Catchers: and "Empire of Blue Water." I particularly want the copies of the four "Caper" stories I wrote and self-published with Cap'n Slappy. Surprisingly, you don't find them in the thrift store here on the island.

If they were all e-books, I could have slipped them into my pocket before I got on the plane. I'd have them now and not still be sending monthly checks to the storage company.

If you've ever directed young people in a period play, even something written in the 1960s like "Play It Again, Sam," you'll find that when the character they're playing has to make a phone call, they have no idea what to do with a dial phone. They really don't. They stare at the thing and you have to show them how to pretend to use it, and even then, it's not convincing because they have to think about it instead of doing it naturally. They don't miss dial phones, or even digital phones wired to the wall, because they've never experienced them. And that also points to where books are headed. It won't be long before they are curiosities, not necessities.

And if you think about how telephones and newspaper text systems have changed in just a couple of decades, you'll realize e-books will also change so much, so fast, that in a few years we'll barely recognize today's Kindle or Nook as e-books, just like today's reporter would be baffled by those old VDTs.

E-books will replace traditional books because in the ways that matter, they offer far more benefits. They're less expensive to produce, don't consume trees, are far more portable. Soon we won't even say "e-books." The word "book" will mean the content, not the container, to coming generations, most of whom will never read or even hold a traditional book. Just like the comforting clicks of the old VDTs, the tactile experience that we think of as reading but which actually has nothing to do with what the word means, will bow to the realities of the electronic world.

Books will go on. Masses of paper smeared with ink and bound between covers probably will not.

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