We May Not Have the Eyes to See the Electronic Page
As our expectations shift and shift again, the future of the book changes apace. Pages move to cyberspace, bookmarks tag ephemera, jackets become jpegs. Everything seems to point now at the screen. But are days to come arriving early, or is this just a techno-dream?
Reading through the front matter of Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe in PDF form recently, I was struck by his enthusiasm for changing the way in which books are offered to their readers. Part of his career depends on it, on dragging new readers in with electronic forms of his published work, at no charge. It worked for me, and I’m very thankful for it.
The book, Doctorow writes, is not what it once was: paper is now merely one expression of the form. As increasingly more people read books on screens, “fewer people are reading words off of fewer pages than ever before”.
Now, I’m a little skeptical about this. I’ve lived just long enough to have read the printed book’s epitaph, to have rejoiced at its revival and to have wondered at what next prediction would pronounce its indubitable fate. But I’m with Doctorow on one thing – electronic books have the potential to increase the reading public. And they’re not likely to be accumulated by people who won’t actually read them. Traditional paper books are sometimes little more than middle-class wallpaper, the pretentiousness of something never read.
As a graduate student hungry for ever more to read I discovered the marvels of Project Gutenberg, where many of the world’s greatest literary triumphs are available online, in plain text, for free. Thankfully, copyright protection doesn’t last for ever. Michael Kim over at Hopping into Puddles recently mentioned a new blog, Planet eBook, which is starting a similar, smaller-scale effort with much more user-friendly formatting.
This sort of project abounds in cyberspace, but there’s a long way to go towards full acceptance. And there’s a question even Cory Doctorow doesn’t ask. Who reads these books? Sure, income-deprived graduate students in my case and science fiction buffs in their hundreds of thousands in his, but is that just because we’re techno-savvy enough? And more to the point, who isn’t reading them?
The World Health Organisation, offering the latest figures from 2002, reports that of those in its South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions – 3.2 billion people, or around half of the world’s population – approximately 43.5% are visually impaired. That’s almost a quarter of the world’s population.
So the numbers are shrinking and pointing almost exclusively at the developed world. But the WHO mentions in passing that its figures don’t include those people with refractive error, the most common type of eye problem in developed countries, ranging from myopia to astigmatism and presbyopia. In other words, why most people wear glasses, and why LCD screen glare is a constant problem.
There’s a chance – not outside the realms of plausibility – that around half of the world’s population would have difficulty reading electronic books, even if they were able to access them. Sure, Sony offers glare free (but dull) ‘electronic paper’ through its Reader, which Amazon in the US and Dymocks in Australia have built on with their own offerings. But who is using these relatively expensive devices? And how will they affect the visually impaired?
I’m particularly concerned about this because I have an eye disease, keratoconus, that makes reading screens very difficult for any extended period. But I blog, run an editing department that works almost exclusively on-screen and online, and download electronic books. The trick is that I print out almost everything over a few pages. I’d prefer to kill a few trees than live a life of glazed eyes and pain.
So in my case, and many more, the near future of the book is not likely to escape the paper page. But something has to change, both to improve accessibility and to make the book more appealing. Perhaps there’s scope for electronically enhanced paper books in some way, at least until medical science and economic development can deliver more of us fully into the cyberworld.
The future shifts, the future changes: my future is not yours. Books existed before paper and will carry on after it. But the shape of things to come is still uncertain, still puzzling the more you look at it. And that’s the way of the world.