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.