Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Future of Books

It's still "crunch" time at my day job, so I won't be able to blog at length for a few more weeks. This time, I just want to draw your attention to an essay by Cory Doctorow about e-books in the March issue of LOCUS. He points out that most of the people who claim they won't buy e-books because they don't like reading off a computer screen do, in practice, spend many of their waking hours happily reading off computer screens. What they mean, he says, is that they don't want to read novel-length works on the computer. He maintains that the computer (and even more so, the PDA and cell phone) is best suited for reading short forms that lend themselves to multitasking. “Networked computers. . . have a million ways of asking for your attention, and just as many ways of rewarding it.” The medium shapes the message, as we've been told since the 1960s.

As Doctorow puts it, “The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive style of the novel.” And, to glance back at earlier changes he doesn't mention, the transition from hand-copied manuscripts to print allowed the invention of popular fiction (and many types of nonfiction) as we know it. Likewise, the supplanting of the scroll by the codex (a bound sheaf of pages) must have been a giant leap in convenience for the reader, with the capacity for flipping instantly to any page desired, not to mention making indexing possible.

It's not “that screens aren't sharp enough to read novels off of,” Doctorow says. Rather, the novel isn't "screeny" enough for the computer. (I like that word.) Read the whole article if you can; it's fascinating. Is he right in thinking that long fiction won't become a widespread use of electronic media, at least not anytime soon? Although I'm an e-published author, I admit I don't take full advantage of the technology. If there's an e-published version of a work that's either unavailable or disproportionately expensive in print, I'll buy the e-book. Otherwise, I choose the paperback. One reason is that, although I own a laptop and a Gemstar reader, I'm most likely to read e-books in the nonportable venue of the desktop computer. Paperbacks, I can carry anywhere. However, some people actively prefer e-books because many texts can be packed into a small space, the font size can be adjusted, and backlighting allows reading anywhere without external light. Yet even in the world of STAR TREK, where everyone reads text off handheld devices that look very much like today's e-book readers, some people (such as Captain Kirk) still enjoy collecting bound books.


  1. david gray11:24 AM EDT

    I count myself one of those collectors of the printed word, if only a very recent one, and it shows up in my futuristic fiction.
    One of the things I make known in my story is the rarity of bound paper books aboard ships or stations -- the weight and volume of such things in any quantity makes them impractical. As a consequence they are disdained by some but highly treasured by others. On the ship my protag "inherits" there is a huge, Nemo-esque ship's library, an unspeakable extravagance for a spacegoing vessel. In addition, there's a single book -- a family heirloom -- which, while not particularly significant in content -- it's a book of Russian poetry-- has sentimental value that ties several of the characters together by its very existence. That's the sort of romantic charm I like to associate with printed books.

  2. I enjoy both. I like to collect books, but I also like to read e-books. When you look at the amount of reading we do on our screen, it probably far exceeds the length of a novel, so I don't agree with him. However, I do enjoy holding a book in my hands. :)


  3. I much prefer reading off either my Treo or my ebookwise device. I always see if an e-edition is available before I sigh and purchase a print book. I'm more interested in good stories at a good price, than in a delivery system.

  4. "When you look at the amount of reading we do on our screen, it probably far exceeds the length of a novel, so I don't agree with him."

    He's not talking about word count or volume of text in the aggregate, but rather large amounts of text in a single, sustained format (e.g., novel)

    I don't completely agree with him, either, though, because I do know people who actually prefer the e-book format over paper. More often, however, I run into people (outside the e-pub community, of course) who are leery of the idea of reading a book from a screen. Often I have to explain to them that other options exist besides sitting at a desk for the length of a whole novel.