I promised a blog about ebooks yesterday, which this will sort of be: I’m not quite in the mood to do this, but it feels silly to fall at the last hurdle of my blog-a-day. I referenced this blog by Philip Reeve concerning Why book awards are rubbish (true enough, see also Ursula K. Le Guin) but more importantly, Why books are doomed. The main thing I really want to talk about is why I disagree with this latter statement, and why I would suggest that the death of the book as we know it, and the novel as a genre, will not die out in my lifetime.
1. Reading an ebook is not the same as reading something on the internet
Well, not in my experience so far at least. A huge and important distinction between reading from the screen of a laptop and reading from the screen of an ebook reader is in the lighting, and an ebook reader is not backlit and so does not strain the eyes as a computer screen does. Therefore the limited attention span of the internet reader (TLDR) will not necessarily apply to the ebook. It will be approached in a different manner. In fact, I would suggest that through the medium of the ebook reader the daunting size of a lot of novels will no longer be an issue, and may persuade people who otherwise might not to read them. I’m finding, in admittedly less than a week of owning a kindle, that I’m more inclined to read non-fiction, and that I’m not daunted by the length of the book or the chapters. Maybe in time, I’ll let you know. But while I think that the opportunity to tell stories in different ways using the ebook reader will be exciting to many, I doubt many developments will revolutionize the way novels are written in any more significant way than 3D is failing to revolutionize films.
2. You need an ebook reader to read ebooks
Or a bit of software which can open ebook files – but that does not defeat the objection that computer screens are more difficult to read than ebook reader screens. There will be some people – I would suggest generally older people, but this will persist, I believe, until my generation is old – who will resist buying ebooks. Which means that there will still be a market for books. It is true that this does not mean that there will be NEW physical books, and when I am old it may be that it is only through the second-hand market that these are available. But books will still be objects with which people are familiar.
This goes further, however. I haven’t researched this enough but my understanding is that certain books – such as the Harry Potter series – are only available through one ebook provider (Sony, as I recall). If this kind of thing continues to happen with such major titles, then I suspect that many readers will prefer to have the physical object to having added extras – and I suspect that added extras will remain less than vital to books, like DVD extras remain unwatched. An ebook reader is quite an investment – you can probably get a set of bookshelves for less, although they couldn’t store as many books. And then the books are not necessarily all that much cheaper… so there is still an attraction to physical books.
3. Objects are important
I’m an archaeologist, so obviously (to me, at least) I like physical objects. They’re what survives. Sometimes they might have something written on them which is important, but that’s a historian’s job, not mine.
Physical objects look better than computer files. They can be on display. They have texture and warmth. This will not help them survive forever, but it will prolong their lives. Until ebooks can do colour as well as a printer, until comics and illustrated books are as good on an ebook reader as they are in reality, physical books will remain a necessity.
Books will continue to exist because they do exist now. There will not be a mass burning or recycling of books just because they have been rendered obsolete by ebooks. This is not because they won’t be taking up a lot of space, but because the public image of whoever does that will be bad.
In addition to this, there are hundreds of books which exist now which do not exist as ebooks. The conversion of novels and so on may be taking place rapidly, but there are other books besides these which are not being converted, by which I mean academic books, especially older ones. More importantly, the money (probably) isn’t there to do it. Academic libraries won’t be able to convert, new academic books will need to be printed, and so I suspect that printing presses will not shut down their production of commercially viable books if they also produce academic books. In addition to this it is already proving difficult for the few public libraries who wish to convert to digital formats to do so – this is partly the issue of image. Therefore, books as objects have to survive.*
4. The way books are written will not necessarily change
The novel is 2000 or more years old . . . written narrative has changed format many times, beginning as transcriptions of oral forms, or aids to memory (at least in Europe), but when reading for its own sake began to emerge there were novels, and they have lasted. It’s what we’re used to reading. I do not think this new technology will revolutionize how they are written, even if it changes reading habits. There is something which feels ingrained and natural to the progression of the novel that I think alternatives are likely to be hard to sell for a few years yet.
So – those were just a few of my thoughts on why I don’t think the book is dead yet. There are a few things about ebooks that I haven’t covered. They are easier to hold than big books, but you wouldn’t want to fall asleep holding one. You can’t read them in the bath (not that I have actually read a physical book in the bath either, when I had to have baths I would listen to music or podcasts, and the issue does not arise with the ever superior shower). Books don’t need batteries – but ebook reader batteries last for ages anyway. Books don’t break if you drop them, or lean on them. Ebooks don’t weigh as much, or take up as much space.
But what will probably lead me to buy more ebooks than physical books is the exact opposite of why I buy CDs rather than MP3s (generally): you can’t convert a physical book to an ebook very easily. Therefore if I don’t want the object (which I do with people like Ursula Le Guin or China Mieville, for example) then there’s no reason not to get the ebook format. Except that you have to pay VAT on ebooks, which is frankly ridiculous, but is the subject for another blog (preferably by someone else).
* This, I would suggest, is actually a bad thing. If there was ever a place for the digitization of information and books it is academic libraries, mostly so that other people can’t have got their hands on a book you desperately need when you have a deadline (for example . . .). Also, ebook publication could theoretically bring down the cost of academic publication and also mean that it can be sold to wider audiences. Of course, it also means that tutors couldn’t lend their students books quite so easily. There are flaws. But there is great potential in the digitization of academic materials, in my opinion.