At work today someone mentioned the Amazon Kindle, and a lively chat ensued. The people I work with are, for the most part, highly intelligent and much younger than I — and they generally, and probably correctly, see printed books as increasingly quaint, and ultimately doomed.

I’ve been having this conversation for years (I wrote about it here, three years ago). I can certainly see the advantages of gadgets like the Kindle: for starters, you can carry 1500 books in your pocket, and you can download new ones out of thin air in seconds. You can add your own contextual annotations, which are then backed up by Amazon (along with a list of the books you own) in case you lose the device. You can read not only books, but also magazines, newspapers, and even blogs. You can copy passages into a “clippings” file. And of course, perhaps best of all, you can search the book’s text.

But there are drawbacks as well, including one that really gives me the creeps. In my own 2006 post (linked above), I downplayed the problem of “data rot” — the tendency of data to be lost as storage media evolve — but it is certainly worth noting that there are printed texts in existence that are still legible after thousands of years, while 8-track tapes from the Seventies are effectively useless. Also, books are so low-tech that they require nothing except light to deliver their content, while a Kindle relies on a fantastically complex computer and display — not to mention charged batteries.

As for the part that “really gives me the creeps”, readers should have a look at this classic post on the subject, by blogger Mark Pilgrim. It is called The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts), and in Act V Mr. Pilgrim quotes George Orwell’s 1984:

Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

I’ll be hanging on to my books.

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  1. Court says

    Your comment about “data-rot” is a very salient one. You could also note the fragility of the net and electronic devices: they depend on electricity, the supply of which is in hardly guaranteed forever.

    However. Today’s books are printed so cheaply they will soon turn dust, particularly in humid environments; and there are a finite number of existing copies of any book, whereas an ebook theoretically can be copied infinitely (though in practice the DRM on a Kindle limits this severely.)

    I’ve written on this topic at greater length here. Though I tend to come down on the side of ebooks, I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. And the paper books I have, you better believe I’m hanging on to.

    Posted April 10, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    That’s a good essay you’ve linked to, Court. There’s no question that physical books are looking very unmodern these days. And as a blogger, I of course am myself a tributary of the online flow of unprinted text.

    It may even be that the Orwellian scenario adumbrated above will be prevented by the enormously distributed redundancy of the Internet. I hope so.

    Nevertheless, there is something different about the physicality of a printed book. It needs no interpreter, no software, no device to display its data; in a very immediate sense it is the data. To display this comment, by contrast, you need the Internet, a modem, and a digital computer, complete with electronic display. What all of this finally gets you is a surface upon which legible words can be seen; the humble and atavistic book can work the same magic simply by falling open.

    Posted April 10, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Yeah, for me, books win out because of their heft, the data rot issue, and the fact that you need only master the skill of reading to operate a book. Data storage/reading devices change over time, requiring the learning of new skills. The only real problem with books becomes evident when it’s time to move to a new residence, and you find out that books account for half of your possessions.


    Posted April 10, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Addofio says

    I was reading with interest, not feeling too involved given that I hope paper books will survivie at least as long as I will, when it occurred to me that the technological complexity of paper books is at the publication end of things. It’s possible that as things evolve, publication will be streamlined (further?) for epublications, and the issue of technical complexity or simplicity will even out somewhat.

    Or maybe there will be a general collapse of complex civilization in the not too distant future, and the whole question will be moot.

    Posted April 13, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says

    I’m hoping someone will invent a printing method that creates books that are, essentially, a single piece of nanoplastic. The plastic will start out in liquid form, and “printing” will involve pouring the liquid into the appropriately adjusted mold, with some form of self-assembling nanotech that not only creates pages and a cover, but also maneuvers the black and colored “ink” particles where they belong on the pages and the cover. Once the liquid is in place and the book is ready to be produced, a current runs through the whole thing and hardens the book, which drops out of the printer with a satisfying thunk.

    The finished book will look (and perhaps feel) like the hard- or softcover books we know today, and will behave the same way as a 2009-era book in almost all respects except one: if you don’t like your book, you can toss it back in the the tank, where it will re-liquefy and become material for the next book to be printed out. With enough clever design, such a book might prove less susceptible to the ravages of time than a typical dead-tree tome.

    The only problem with this tech is that it requires a large “printer tank,” something in which to store the material that gets turned into books.


    Posted April 14, 2009 at 2:00 am | Permalink