Beyond the Book

Who wants to carry an e-book to the beach?

Cass Sunstein observes in his recent book Republic.com that both optimism and pessimism are "great obstacles to clear thinking about new technological developments." That's wise counsel from the eminent University of Chicago Law School professor, but it seems unlikely to carry the day.

When it comes to new technology, optimists are the ones who are driving the relentless innovation that will someday soon allow us to talk to our toasters. Pessimists are the ones who ask "Why would I want to do that?" and are willing to risk sounding like a geezer by speaking up for greater goals than convenience. Maybe neither side is engaged in "clear thinking," but most of us can't help leaning one way or the other.

Ask yourself, for example, how you feel about the prospect of something as old-fashioned as the book being replaced by something available electronically instead of on paper. If books have been important to you in a certain way, if you have developed a feeling about them as physical objects, you will probably have a sense of trepidation about e-books. If your business is publishing and selling printed books, it's more than trepidation: Electronic books are one more sign that the world's gone mad. As Michael Korda, the top editor at Simon and Schuster, recently noted in Harper's, "Hardly any business has a longer, deeper tradition of pessimism than book publishing."


Temperamentally, I'm with the pessimists. The problem with emerging publishing technology is that it will turn books into something you can't read without a machine. And I don't like machines that malfunction in mysterious ways. (Just the other day, my home computer went into a coma. The only message of explanation was "Operating system not found.")

But in the interests of clear thinking, I decided recently to set natural aversion aside and see if I could understand what is driving the effort to take us -- as Adobe Systems, Inc., likes to put it --"Beyond the Book."

Adobe offers a free seminar to publishing professionals that is designed to popularize such products as the Adobe Acrobat eBook Reader. The fundamental working assumption in the company's presentations is that there are better ways to publish information. The goal is to "create once, publish many ways." In other words, a printed book may be the first step, but if it's created with future uses in mind it can take on an electronic life of its own. Reading it on a computer, you can click on a word, for example, and hear it pronounced and defined. All kinds of links to more information become available. And on and on.

One of the great annoyances of the early decades of computer use -- that electronic information becomes difficult to retrieve when you switch to a new machine with new software -- is now solvable, to hear the technosavvy tell it. To find out why, you have to listen to people say things like "XML is the key to multi-purposing your information" and "There are now ways to provide you an SGML DTD that is valid XML." The point of it is that XML -- Extensible Markup Language -- can make documents "future-proof."

From here, it's a short jump to bottom-line concerns. The goal of "repurposing" your documents is "to monetize content in new ways, because at the end of the day you want to sell content," as one Adobe sales rep put it. Textbook publishers, for example, get no additional revenue when used books are resold. By setting up an ancillary Web site, the publisher has a chance to update books and recapture lost revenue.

In the small corner of the book industry that is devoted to moving "beyond the book," there is a good deal of experimentation, and much of it seems foolish. At the annual book-publishing convention held in Chicago in June, I encountered a salesman who held out his wrist and said proudly, "We even put a book on a watch." Looking closely, I could see the text of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe scroll on what was either a very tiny computer or a very large wristwatch.

"But the text is moving so slowly," I said.

"I didn't say it was good," the salesman replied, "just that we put a book on a watch."

You can now carry 10 or 20 books around with you by loading them onto your handheld computer. I tested out a Palm IIIc while the Palm rep told of people using it to read a few pages while waiting at the bus stop. I asked if people seemed to be warming up to reading books on small screens. "I'm hearing from people that they're addicted to reading on it," he said. The e-book boosters seemed aware that they were surrounded by thousands of people with strong feelings about print books. To counteract the notion that they are antibook, they emphasized their stance as avidly proreading.

A couple of months ago, I downloaded onto my computer at work an example of an e-book: Two Essays on Digital Books by Jason Epstein. Recently, I fired up the Acrobat Reader and took a look at it. It looked fine on the screen, with even the look of rough paper fiber around the edges of the pages. But quickly I realized that the material was the same as that in Epstein's Book Business, a hardback that I happened to have as well. I felt relieved that I'd be able to enjoy the author's wisdom on paper.

It struck me later that I had no recollection of exactly how it came to be that I put the icon for Epstein's digital essays on my computer screen. Where did these essays come from? Somewhere on the World Wide Web, no doubt, but I couldn't tell you where. It's not usually that way with acquiring a book. I can remember quite clearly, even though it was 20 years ago, buying a three-volume set of Montaigne's essays in Powell's, a used-book store on 57th Street in Chicago. I had been eyeing the beautifully bound collection for weeks, vacillating about whether to part with the $25 Powell's was asking. I remember where these books were on the shelves and the feeling of carrying them up to the counter. Once the cash was out of my hands, I felt only the satisfaction that comes from owning something well made, durable, and valuable.

Maybe that's not so important. Information, thoughts, and ideas are useful whether they are presented on paper or by some other means. In Book Business [reviewed by Scott Stossel in TAP, January 29, 2001], Epstein makes the important distinction between the future of the book industry and the future of books. Methods of printing, of distribution, and of sales are being transformed. Since he believes that the publishing industry is in "terminal decrepitude," Epstein sees the arrival of new technologies as providential. He doesn't fear, as some do, that books will lose their power: "New technologies do not erase the past, but build on it."

Sometimes new technologies supplant old ones, though. In the case of books, I don't think it can happen. To close with a summery thought, I make this bold prediction: You will never, ever, want to take an e-book to the beach. Computer chips, for one thing, do not like the hot sun.

Or am I being too optimistic? Maybe a coolant system for the e-book reading machine is being invented at this very moment and the traditional book as we've known it really is dead.


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