April 21, 2009

eBooks: Friend or Foe?

A room without books is like a body without a soul - Cicero

I am an avid reader. At any point there will be three or four books on the go in my house. At the moment I am re-reading Covey's "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", as well as passing several peaceful hours with one of the latest Robert Ludlum's. On top of that I have recently finished the Warren Buffet biography "Snowball", Sidney Lumet's fascinating 'Making Movies', and James Utterback's "Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation". This is an addition to the three stageplays I am currently learning for various roles I am acting in over the next couple of months.

Most rooms in my house have at least one or two books in them. Some are there because I've left them mid-read, others are there because I've started a small library in that room. But they are there. In the flesh, so to say.

They're not some electronic stream of bits and bytes to be accessed through the latest Kindle ("Other e-book readers are available"), and I'm happy about that.

But I wonder how much longer this will last.

Think about it. People used to have racks and racks of shelves containing the latest 7" and 12" vinyl records. These gave way to rather fewer racks of shelves containing CD's and these have giving way to a small electronic digital music player which contains all the music known to man and still has room for your photo's, calendar, to do lists and a clock.

Likewise people used to have large storage areas devoted to VHS videos. These were superceeded by DVD's which had higher capacity and smaller footprints. Now these too have been replaced by electronic streamed versions to things such as a PSP, iPhone and other such viewers (With the user having to re-purchase the intellectual property as well as the new medium!).

Now it looks as though books are going the same way.

Here's the problem I have with this: A lot of people get enjoyment out of the physical act of handling a book as well as the act of reading itself. In other words for books, the medium is often half of the experience of reading a book. If you've ever found yourself reading a PDF version of something on your PC you'll understand that this is in fact the case.

So are electronic books going to replace 'real' books? Will bookstores go out of business in the same way that record stores and video stores are starting to crumble?

Probably. The wise ones will embrace the new medium in much the same way as Amazon has embraced the purchasing of books electronically rather than in-person. It's the price of progress.

But I would like to think that somewhere there will be a couple of small independent book stores that will survive due to the fact that a lot of people want to be able to pick their books up and physically handle them. Sure, there won't be many of them, but maybe the laws of supply and demand will ensure that just enough of them survive to make it a viable proposition.

It would be nice to think so, wouldn't it?


  1. Hmm, I wasn't alive during the vinyl era, but it's a comparison I'd have used as well.

    Unlike vinyl though, I would say that the survival of books in their current form is certain.

    The difference is in the way you interact with them. A book is experienced through the eyes, not the ears - which makes a big difference, and as anyone who has stared at any screen for a length of time will attest, using your eyes to read text on a screen for four hours is actually quite painful.

    The difference between this and digital movie formats is the requirement viewing detail - individual words read at arms length have a different effect to a movie or tv show on a screen two or three metres away, since you are not scanning line after line of text.

    In addition, the move to DvDs was uncontroversially a huge improvement to the home movie experience - unlike with Vinyl you never hear people say that VHS had a "warmer picture"

    The improvements in musical formats have been to its portability - enabling everyone to experience outrageous levels of variety in a single commute.

    Unlike music, books are read over many hours, not three to five minute bites - and enabling someone to pack 1000 books with them in something the size of a single book does not, to my mind as someone who only reads one book at a time, make any discernable improvements to the experience.

    In its current form, I can't see eBooks catching on like CDs, MP3s and DvDs. It'll be used by some folk, but unviersal appeal will escape it.

    IMHO, of course - I have been wrong before.


  2. Once again a well thought through and erudite comment.

    Thanks Algo.

  3. And you've got a link from the other blog too!