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.