The future of ebooks?

June 6, 2008

Admittedly, I’m someone who has a professional appreciation of books and technology, so I’m always curious and somewhat stymied to see the strong resistance many people have to ebooks in various ways and in their various forms. The debate concerning ebooks is often centered on one somewhat silly idea — that an ebook reader, no matter how great the technology, can never truly approximate the physical sensation of reading a book, and specifically that an ebook will never have the smell that the pages of an old book do as you turn them. If this was really the straw that broke the ebook’s back, I’d be willing to concede the point and give up immediately, frankly. I do wonder, however, what this silly clinging to a not-necessarily-pleasant smell is masking in people’s honest reactions to ebook technology. I get that reading, and especially reading for pleasure, does involve a visceral response, which is why I’m also betting that those who cling to “book smell” as a reason to boycott ebooks are traditionalists who were probably never a good market for ebooks to begin with — those who, if not harboring fear of new technologies, at least are not going to embrace them willingly. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with age, but the stereotype of the elderly person unable to get the VCR to stop blinking “12:00” does come to mind. (Yes, VCR, kids — maybe your parents can tell you about those.) The ebook discussion hearkens back interestingly to the resistance to VCRs in their infancy, actually, because many of the same discussions that took place in the 1980s about watching movies in a new way sound new all over again now: specifically concerns about copyright (the question of whether, if you can copy a movie off TV and possibly share it, it would damage the film’s copyright was actually a landmark court case in recent copyright law; more on copyright and ebooks below), but also: why would you want to watch a movie at home, on a smaller screen, when you’d be missing the “movie theater experience” (big screen, popcorn smell, crowds of folks sharing the movie experience with you)? And I’ll admit: I infinitely prefer watching a movie at the theater to watching a movie at home, even now that TVs are nearing the size of movie screens anyway and HD-DVDs make the experience crystal clear. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t watch movies at home — I do, and I enjoy it. It’s just different. And there are some movies that you know are going to be better in the theater than at home, or vice versa. Why are we unable to make the leap when it comes to reading paper vs. electronic books? Do we have to dismiss one option unilaterally? For many, sadly, the answer seems to be yes.

I’ve been following the discussion of the Amazon Kindle since its initial release last year with interest. Although the Kindle corrects some of the past big criticisms of ebook readers (specifically, its electronic ink eliminates the need for the reader to be backlit, creating an easier reading experience on the eyes), there are still legions of folks who refuse to contemplate it — like my officemate, who had only to be asked, “Hey, have you seen the Kindle?” before quickly answering, “Yeah, I looked at it a little bit — I can’t see myself ever using one.” Huh, well, OK. I wonder, then, if she would just be appalled at this ebook reader design featured on The Scholarly Kitchen blog? I have to say, I want to see the prototype of this thing, because my first thought was, “Wouldn’t that be really annoying to read on?” I suspect that, as with the larger ebook debate, the answer is more nuanced than that — would it be better/worse to use to read a novel-length text than Twitter updates? I want to know, so Core77, get to work and contact me!

On the ebook copyright front, as with many different types of “new vs. old” media, fear of copyright piracy seems to be raging again in the ebook world. Adam C. Engst responds nicely in this blog entry.

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