Time to take eBooks seriously, unfortunately

There’s a certain irony in the fact that contemporary books are almost completely created on computers, yet are delivered as products physically, on paper.

They are written in word processors. Their pages are composed in layout applications. They are prepared for delivery in a very specific digital format.

Then, oddly enough, they are printed.

Why?

Is it utility? Efficiency? Romanticism? Habit?

Is there any real reason for words to ever meet paper?

These are important questions to ponder because we are at a pivotal point in the history of books.

From here on in, there will be fewer and fewer books that will be delivered on paper.

Within a year or two paper books will be the exception rather than the norm.

Like it or not, this is a certainty.

Thanks to its eBook reader, the Kindle, Amazon sold more electronic books than paper books this past holiday season.

That’s a trend set to continue.

And why not?

eBooks are lighter than paper books. You could carry your entire personal eBook library with you as easily as you could carry one paperback.

eBooks consume far, far fewer resources to produce and distribute.

One can access any eBook from literally anywhere and at any time with devices like the Kindle.

You can adjust the text of an eBook to suit your eyesight.

eBooks are more readily capable of supporting people with disabilities through built-in technologies like text-to-speech.

More to the point, perhaps, you can’t lose eBooks.

For these reasons alone, we should probably embrace eBooks and get ready to put their fibre-based ancestors behind us.

But what do we lose in the process?

In an effort to understand this question a bit better, I dedicated myself to reading nothing but eBooks for a little while.

I used Amazon’s Kindle app on my iPhone to read about a half dozen books.

At first, I missed the feel of paper. But I quickly noticed that was really just a romantic notion. Paper, as a tactile material, serves little functional purpose.

In fact, the very concept of a page quickly became trite.

What I missed, however, was the the sense of volume that a collection of pages lends a book.

When you’re reading a book you can tell how far you are through it simply by feeling the number of pages you’ve read and the number left to read.

With an eBook, you’re never too sure where you are until you’re done. You’re never really sure how big an eBook is, or how much content it holds.

In fact, even after I’d finished Twilight as an eBook, I didn’t realize it was such a tome until I saw a paper-based copy in a book store.

With eBooks, I was really annoyed with being prevented from sharing.

And I certainly missed the vanity physical books enable by their presence on a shelf or table. (Isn’t that half their value?)

But I did appreciate that I could easily hide the fact I was reading a book like Twilight from those around me.

And I loved being able to buy and download books on a whim.

Perhaps the most frustrating experience came when I wasn’t allowed to continue reading an eBook during takeoff and landing as other passengers were with their tidy packages of dead trees.

Despite all that, and even though the iPhone is a less-than-ideal medium for reading novels, I generally enjoyed the experience.

With an eBook, I found that I focussed less on the book, and more on the act of reading.

But I wonder: what happens when the power goes out?

With eBooks, no power means no reading.

Books have existed largely unaltered for hundreds of years for that one simple reason: they don’t require a technological interface to consume.

In general, have light, will read.

And that is perhaps the greatest danger of eBooks: how much knowledge and human experience might we lose when we no longer have access to a power source?

Will the aliens who discover our extinct race only be able to understand it up until about 2011, when eBooks replaced paper?

Then, of course, there’s the question of compatibility. Other than in the rain, paper works pretty much everywhere.

But will eBooks that open on the Kindle open on Apple’s new iPad? (Answer: no.)

Can we be assured that any eBook we buy today will open on future devices? (Answer: no.)

The most obvious question, however, is this: is an eBook even a book at all?

A book, by definition, has pages that are bound with thread or glue that are set inside a cover. It is a physical object that can be caressed, smelled, stroked, cradled, stained with tears, ripped apart with anger, burned, passed on, hidden, lost, found, and loved.

An eBook is nothing like that. In fact, it’s not much of anything at all.

It’s really just a battery-powered mass of words, a collection of information, a potentially never-ending stream of narrative. (Imagine Jack Kerouac writing an eBook – yikes!)

All the same, there’s little doubt in my mind that the paper-based book will be a quaint relic of a bygone era long before my son reaches his teenage years.

In all honesty, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Do you?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, January 29, 2010.