guest post – Rebekah Bartlett,

Curling Up with a Good Ebook: A Response

Don’t get me wrong, I love books. I have lots of them. But Andrew Marr’s recent column in the Guardian about how e-texts will not replace books really bothered me. It seems designed to comfort those of us over 12 that we, and our cultural artifacts, are not on the way out.

But we are of course. Andrew, those e-text readers really aren’t meant for you and me. Sure, we may play with them, even use them regularly once they get better. But it’s the generations of tomorrow for whom they will be essential. We probably will never “get” e-texts the way someone who grows up with them will. And I don’t doubt that the future is children with brightly colored, large plastic e-text readers, students with one e-text reader rather than a backbreaking load of books, and from there a built-in base of adults who have never known anything else.

Let us imagine, for a moment, not what an e-text reader looks like compared to a book for a reader of today, but what a BOOK would look like to the e-text only reader of tomorrow:

“Today our teacher assigned us a BOOK to read. She said there was no e-text for it, so we would have to read it in the original format. Of course I’ve seen books and even read bits of them, but this is the first time I had to read one all the way through.

Let me tell you, books are a real pain!

It’s heavy and the shape is bulky – can’t slide it into my pocket!

Easy to mess up – if you spill Coke on one you can’t just wipe it off.

Using it is so slooow – turning pages, lots more words on each page, hard to keep track

You can write in it (not much space though) but you can’t search your notes or copy them automatically somewhere else, or email them.

Searching the text is tough – no search button, can’t quick arrow through highlighted terms. You have to look them up in an index in the back, then look up each page individually and read until you find the term.

No quick way to look up the meaning of words or get more info – no hyperlinks, no built-in dictionary.

Can’t cut and paste quotes from the text into your own notes or a paper.

Book doesn’t read to you, and no option for audio notes.

The pictures are OK, but you can’t email them to your friends.”

This is not my opinion, just an attempt to imagine the future, where books will be more or less “collectibles” only – like antique china or pez dispensers. Many books after all are only collectibles now – bought mainly for their historical value, their first edition/signed status, or their steel engravings, rather than as usable texts.

We should also consider that the technology of the book has never actually been stagnant. Many older books for example have typography that is very difficult for modern readers – tiny print, tight margins, cramped columns, strange fonts. Yes, plenty of us still read literature from centuries ago, but usually, while we admire an early copy, we read the text in a modern edition, with a modern layout and typography. The e-text reader will just be another step in the evolution of the book, making the content easier to use and enjoy. We should expect that e-text only users will find the technology and “ease of use” of non-electronic books ever more difficult to appreciate.

I don’t think books will disappear, of course, any more than paintings did when photography came into general use. Instead, as e-text usage expands, the value of books as art objects (and admiration for those who can make them) will likely come to predominate over their usefulness. This future might be 50 years away, but then again, it might not. I had no idea 10 years ago that I would use electronic devices exclusively to look up phone numbers, find maps, and store photos.

– Rebekah Bartlett, Coelacanth Books
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