Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Nutted by Reality

Via Dr. Joe, The Wall Street Journal has the latest forecast of the future of books...I don't disagree with any of it really, but damn if it doesn't sound horribly unpleasant, at least to me. The money quote:
It's not about the page versus the screen in a technological grudge match. It's about the screen doing a dozen things the page can't do.
I know I'm alone on this (just call me Samuel T. Cogley--how's that for an obscure Star Trek reference?), but I'm perfectly happy having the page do only one thing, especially since it does it pretty reliably. Usually, the more functions a process has, the less good it is at any of them and the more ways it can screw up.

The other money quote is:
to expect future generations to be satisfied with printed books is like expecting the BlackBerry users of today to start communicating by writing letters, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps.
Well, I had a BlackBerry, and it was so badly designed and aggravating to use--and battery life so bad--that I damn nearly was driven back to writing letters and did not mourn its loss in a Corning parking lot in the slightest. And, hey, I miss writing letters. As for the iPhone that I have admittedly waxed poetic about...well, once the novelty wears off, it becomes as good and bad as any other electronic device: sporadically stops working, loses connectivity, does what it wants to do rather than what I want it to do ("No, don't check for new mail...I want to delete the shit you've already gotten! No, stop! Grrr!!!!," is my daily exhortation to it), etc. Again, it's often a great tool for my work, but not so much for my life, which these days I seek to simplify.

Perhaps I am growing too old to appreciate (or even like all that much anymore) new media--or perhaps I'm just getting fed up with it. After a day of everything electronic acting up, it's nice to turn everything off and crack open a book that does not require batteries, will not abruptly shut down or quit, will not magically stop working, will not lose connectivity should the moon change phase, etc. Yes, electronic media are wonderful for getting work done and accessing information--and even getting news--but at the end of the day when work is over (and yes, work is over at the end of the day)...sayonara.

On a similar note, Publishers Weekly has an update on Penguin Books:
Penguin has reported that e-book sales from the first four months of 2008 have surpassed the house's total e-book sales for all of last year. According to the publisher, the spike is "more than five times the overall growth in sales, year-on-year, through April 2008." Penguin Group CEO David Shanks said he attributed the jump, in large part, to the growing popularity of e-book readers.

That said, the publisher has been doing its part to add premium features to its electronic content. To that end, the house is developing properties like the Penguin Enhanced e-Book Classics; the first title in that series, Pride and Prejudice, will debut this summer and include such bells and whistles as reviews (of the original publication), a filmography, recipes and notes on etiquette. Nine more titles will be released as Enhanced e-Book Classics throughout the fall.
Well, since the Kindle is just about a year old, those growth numbers are not all that surprising. (The statistical lesson I have learned from analyzing new media all these years is that dramatic growth rates are easy when you're starting from a very low base.) And, yeah, I bet everyone with a Kindle is going to immediately spring for the collected works of Jane Austen. This is likely more of a school thing (oh, and most of the classics are in the public domain; read: cheap to publish). And as I have repeatedly been told as of late, unbidden, by random people on the bus, trains, planes, in bars, etc., I am apparently the only person in the world who reads the classics, like Dickens, for pleasure. Tough.

Also via Dr. Joe (yes, I am catching up on my e-mail links today), a Wall Street Journal story about a writer/professor with a Brobdignagian book library. This passage sums up my attitude, and that of other people like me who Really Like Books:
These days it may appear that books, per se, are doomed. The electronic readers are ever lighter, smaller, and more sophisticated. Google is undertaking to scan and digitize every book in the world -- not without some resistance. Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that even the reading devices are pointless, since according to him nobody reads anymore, at least not in the sense of sequentially taking in long and complex works. I have nothing against the readers, and may find myself buying one eventually -- they'd come in very handy on trips, the way the iPod does. I'm all in favor of the comprehensive digitizing of the world's books, since that would very much ease small points of research (and I'm not worried about losing control of my copyrights, since it's unlikely many people would read entire books online that way). As far as the decline of reading goes, I am nervous, but also believe that matters of taste and inclination do swing around on long orbits.

But I would very much miss books as material objects were they to disappear. The tactility of books assists my memory, for one thing. I can't remember the quote I'm searching for, or maybe even the title of the work that contains it, but I can remember that the book is green, that the margins are unusually wide, and that the quote lies two-thirds of the way down a right-hand page. If books all appear as nearly identical digital readouts, my memory will be impoverished. And packaging is of huge importance, too -- the books I read because I liked their covers usually did not disappoint. In the world of books, all is contingency and serendipity. Books are much more than container vessels for ideas. They are very nearly living things, or at least are more than the sum of their parts.
Amen, brother!

Here's a thought. I have found over the years that just about 99% of anything I have ever liked is either quickly discontinued (foods, brands, etc.), cancelled (TV shows), or otherwise phased out (CDs, record stores, book stores, basic intelligence). Armed with that knowledge, perhaps it's time to pull a George Costanza. Yes, I think I will sell off my book collection and buy a Kindle. Yes, e-books, here I come! I love cellphones! I will drive and talk all the time! I love Microsoft products! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

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