If you’ve read The Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not a technological reactionary. In my arsenal of gadgets you’ll find a much-loved iPod Touch, a less-loved Kindle 1.0, a mobile phone that I regularly use, and more. A friend of mine claims that I’m a gadget-head. Usually I beg to differ, but having just inventoried my electronic wares, I’m beginning to think that he may be on to something.
Here’s the thing, though: I also love books — and my that I mean, printed books. While I’d hardly consider myself to be a book fetishist (i.e., I’m not a devotee of Nicholas A. Basbanes), I’m a bibliophile in about the same way that I’m a gadget-head, that is, by default. Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable library, mostly in my capacity as an academic; I love to read; and I annotate my books prodigiously, creating personalized indexes so that I can return easily to the passages I’ve underlined. Maybe one day I’ll scan and post one of these indexes here, so that you can see just how intensely I read.
Because I seem to be pulled in two different directions technologically speaking, I was immediately drawn to this week’s (June 8 & 15) cover of the New Yorker, pictured above. Its setting is a post-apocalyptic New York City. An alien has touched down and sits amid the ruins, surrounded by what appears to be e-waste. Discarded CDs, mobile phones, and computer keyboards abound. Also strewn amid the litter are devices that look suspiciously like Amazon Kindles. Our genial-looking alien relaxes with a tattered but still mostly intact printed book.
The New Yorker cover is a brilliant commentary on the particular bibliographic moment in which we are currently living. It seems as though electronic reading was the conversation at last week’s BookExpo America. The prevalence of that conversation tells us just how short-sighted — and indeed profit-obsessed — the book industry is becoming. The central problem with e-reading, beyond the temptation to overly-secure digital content, is that of endurance. Too many e-reading devices and too many digital formats result in too much of one thing: technological obsolescence.
If you don’t believe me, check out Chapter 1 of The Late Age of Print, where I discuss an early e-book experiment called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). You can find the text of the Agrippa story online, but unless you’re a collector of legacy technologies you pretty much cannot read it in its original form. It was encoded on a 3 1/2-inch floppy diskette (remember those?) that is incompatible with today’s hardware and operating systems.
The partisans of e-reading may well retort that printed books, like their electronic kin, also deteriorate. Paper can become brittle and, well, there’s a reason why the word “bookworm” exists in the English language. All true. But here I’m persuaded both by my own experience and by Nicholson Baker’s wonderful book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001). Baker shows us how even just a modicum of care can help print-on-paper books to endure for centuries. The “slow fires” that the proponents of micro-media first advanced and that the denizens of e-books now expound are pretty much smoke and mirrors.
For e-reading to succeed, there will need to be something even more fundamental than built-in dictionaries, wireless content delivery, and other such bells and whistles. What will be needed above all — and what the printed book so well embodies — is a stable platform. Indeed, when was the last time one of your printed books was “upgraded” out of existence?