What Future the Book?

We May Not Have the Eyes to See the Electronic Page

Book of Secrets, by Damgaard, with Creative Commons LicenceAs 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?

Haley preforms an eye exam, by Paul A. Fagan, with Creative Commons LicenceThe poor, the illiterate and the uninterested spring first to mind. Not everyone can afford or wants to be online. And what about people who can’t see properly?

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.

questions questions, by Rock Alien, with reative Commons licence

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.

4 Responses to What Future the Book?

  1. Michael says:

    On the comments section of my post, there was someone who said he preferred hard copies over ebooks because of the “experience” of reading them. And I think my response to him is appropriate to your post as well. I am hesitant about the transition to ebooks and your post just gave some solid, valid reasons for it.

    This was my response:

    I have to say that I’m a huge fan of actual, physical books as well. I find devices like the Kindle or even basic pdf-file ebooks intriguing and useful but can you write in the margins on those things? Can you flip the pages back and forth from a previous section while figuring out the section you’re on? Or how about using 3 or 4 fingers as bookmarks while you read or while writing a paper on a book?

    I think books are as perfect and evolved as they can get…and to replace them with all-electronic alternatives…it’s going to take some time. Sure there are advantages to electronic books…like the valuable search function to find any word or sentence in a flash, but a physical book has too many things going for it.

    I mean…me personally, I won’t fully transition to devices like the Kindle until they can produce a real-life 3-D holographic image of a book, which I can see before me and virtually hold, flip pages, touch the margins — which will indicate to the device that I want type in notes in the margin through a small fold-out keyboard from the device or something –, and basically be able to do all the things I can already do with a book today, while having all the advantages of electronic books at the same time. Maybe I’m being a bit too picky…but hey, you gotta be demanding with things like this. (And who doesn’t like holograms??)

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Yes I agree with you entirely. And that’s an interesting point about holograms – they would have a physical ‘presence’ without a physical substance. Another point is that I’m a compulsive note taker and underliner – as far as I know only Dymocks’ iLiad reader includes a stylus that allows you to mark passages and so on. That makes it tempting for me despite the nine-hundred Australian dollar price-tag (which, with my eyes might not be well spent). But it wouldn’t really be the same as owning many books – I have half written essays, shopping lists and what-not from years ago in my books, on inside cover, on blank pages and sometimes even in margins. They’re a bit of a personal treasure trove. I have no idea what my smaller kids will think of them in a few years time.

    Another point about the kids is that we’ve brought them up around thousands of physical books and hundreds of their own. Neither are old enough to read yet but both have used them as toys, to chew on and to otherwise use and abuse. My little daughter is now beginning to look at the pictures and identify letters. I’m not so sure that would happen as naturally with an eBook reader.

  3. Richard Crocker says:

    Hi Mike, would it be possible for you to update the link in your article so it heads to the new location for my blog. It’s changed from http://planetebook.wordpress.com/ to http://blog.planetebook.com.

    I’ll be turning off the old blog shortly.


  4. Mike Poole says:

    Thanks Richard – I’ve updated the link in the post. It’s still being read, so hopefully I can send some more people your way. You’re doing a fantastic job, by the way!

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