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« A Good Day's Handwringing redux | Main | Social History of Advertising »

September 22, 2002

If I Were an Editor 6

Friedrich --

If I were an editor, I'd commission a piece on the theme of: "The E-book Revolution Is Over, and E-books Have Won."

Did you follow any of the publicity and press about E-books over the last few years? Big question: How will we be reading in the electronic future? A few devices got manufactured, some novels and nonfiction were issued in e-formats. Squabbles erupted over e-rights, which were assumed to be worth plenty. Publishers got terrified, authors' organizations waved flags, stories ran in magazines, segments ran on news shows. E-books were the next big thing; they were set to explode...

And then: kerflop, or such is the conventional wisdom. No one really liked using the machines and few people bought them. Stephen King perpetrated an e-publishing stunt or two, then lost interest.

So how could I argue that E-books have won? In fact, my headline is just a come-on. What I'd argue instead is that the discussion was always a little off the mark. E-books, E-books...What's this fixation on "books"? Why haven't we been focusing instead on the broader issue of reading and writing?

When I do, I notice that I now do 99% of my writing electronically. I also notice that I'm doing more and more of my reading electronically. Last night, for instance, I spent a couple of hours surfing the web instead of reading the book that's on my desk (Machado de Assis' really amazing "Esau and Jacob," as it turns out). I'm certain that I'm reading more electronically-displayed words these days than I am words on paper.

Even the world of on-paper reading has been transformed by electronics. Books and magazines are being created electronically -- in word processors, then in programs like Quark and Photoshop. (And if you don't think word processors, Quark and Photoshop have had a big impact on the look and feel, and probably the substance, of books and magazines, I'm pretty sure you don't work in the publishing business.) Let's not even talk about the impact of the databases that bookstores, distributors, warehousers and publishers nearly all rely on these days.

It was 20th-century sentimentality to think that the victory of electronics wouldn't really be complete until books themselves had become electronic. In the 21st century, why let "the book" carry such symbolic weight, when, looked at more objectively, "the book" has almost no significance? It isn't even a cultural form, like a gangster movie or a dictionary. It's just a container, akin to a box or a cupboard; it just houses words, ideas, drama, images, whatever. Why use it as a standard by which to measure anything?

Though, as it turns out, the transforming of nearly everything into data does seem to have a characteristic impact on how that everything is used and experienced. Once digitized, material will get sliced and diced; it becomes chunky. Users will tend to search out a one-blast-after-another experience. (Ie., click here, poke around a bit; then click there.) Digitized information is conveniently accessible, but we tend to put it together for ourselves: a bit of this, a bit of that -- who cares how the author has ordered things? We mix and match as we see fit.

Once over our hangup on "the book," it seems to me that what we realize is that databases, the web and email are what becomes of reading and writing once they go digital. We're already doing a lot of databasing, webbing and emailing, and we're only going to do more. E-books? Sure, why not, but they're just a tiny part of the world of electronic reading and writing. And maybe always will be.



posted by Michael at September 22, 2002


Good points. I agree. Just as there are trade paperbakcs, hard covers, audio books, and mass market books, there are now e-books.

But millions of Americans are still illiterate and over 30% of all books published are not sold.

Why aren't we reading more is a much better question that what we are reading on.

Posted by: M.J. Rose on October 3, 2002 08:32 AM

My fiance and I are addicted to books on Palm. We don't even have wireless Net access; we download'n'sync everything. But we read instead of watch TV, and we can beam books back and forth; we're always saying "did you read this?" "did you read that?" and then we can talk about what we've read...

Yeah, I guess if you're considering the market then we are complete oddballs. Oh, well, we lose.

Posted by: speedwell on February 9, 2004 01:26 PM

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