31 March 2009

Ephemeral books?

Should we rely on electronic technology to provide us with books?

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has been posting his thoughts about the Kindle e-book reader for the last couple of days. As a lifelong, voracious reader myself, I've also pondered Amazon's Kindle with a mix of fascination and apprehension. The device is far too expensive, at well over $300, for the likes of me right now, but I'm guessing the price will fall considerably over the next couple of years – or that I'll win the lottery or something. And then maybe I'll get one.

My fascination comes from the idea of being able to have a good book, magazine or newspaper – or many – at hand all the time, tucked into my purse or briefcase for those idle moments at doctor's appointments, etc., without having to cart them around with me. And of course, I'd use my Kindle at home. It's much lighter, weight-wise, than a book, so I'd appreciate it for that quality simply because of my arthritic hands. Holding a book of several hundred pages for extended periods hurts these days and makes reading a lot less enjoyable. It's hard to "fall into" the story when your hands, wrists and fingers ache from holding the book open. And while I know there are stands available in catalogs that will hold the book open for you, they strike me as clunky and inconvenient. You sure couldn't carry them around. But the Kindle would eliminate the problem.

However, like Josh, I'm ambivalent. I LIKE books. I like the look of them on my bookshelves and I love curling up in a chair and reading them. I love the sound the pages make when I turn them and the tactile "feel" of the book in my hands (even as I fight RA), particularly hard-bound books. I love the scent – that unique musty and particular smell of paper and ink, bindings and glue. Libraries send me into ecstasies.

Books have been my dear friends ever since I learned to read. Is there anything as singularly wonderful as opening a new book in anticipation of the journey ahead? Books are chock-full of fascinating people and places and adventures I'll never experience in any other way. Space travel, anyone? A voyage to the bottom of the sea? How about life on a pirate ship or a sword-and-magic battle with goblins?

I feel that way about newspapers too, though not with the same sense of wonder. I get most of my news online now, something I thought I'd never be able to adjust to back when the Internet was still in its toddlerhood. Read a newspaper on a computer screen? Miserable! But I do it without a thought these days and don't mind it a bit. I rarely buy a newspaper anymore, even as I miss the crackle of the pages and the aroma of printers' ink. I even miss having ink-smudged fingers. As a journalist and a long-time reader of newspapers, I'm in mourning over their current demise. I can hardly imagine a world without them. What if the electricity fails? What if I can't afford an Internet connection? This is a real concern, and not just for me. Lots of people still don't have computers at all. What happens if we can't get online? It will be like the Dark Ages.

Yes, there's television. But as with the Internet, these days TV pretty much requires a cable connection or a satellite signal. If you can't afford one, you're in trouble, unless you have a set of rabbit ears or an antenna on your roof. And since the switchover to digital television signals, which has already started in many parts of the country, no cable connection means no television, period.

Besides, I don't know about you, but I'd hate having to rely only on teevee for my news. I'd never know the whole story, and frequently I'd be unable to get both sides. I'd be forced to understand what was happening in the world through a filter of biased opinion and 10-second news bytes. I'd be forever wondering what was propaganda and what wasn't. Television is a corrupt news medium – in all senses of the word.

This whole line of thinking brings me to another problem. Josh mentioned that he can no longer access the college papers he wrote because they were saved on floppy disks – and most computers now don't even have a floppy disk drive, not even for the small, plastic-cased disks that were ubiquitous a decade ago. The big ones of 20 years ago? Forget it. Even if the computer drives were available to read them, the software required to read and translate old word-processing programs aren't. So those papers – that information – is gone unless it was printed on paper and saved by the creator or user.

It was interesting to me that Josh brought that up, because just the other day I was thinking about it myself. There are things I wrote, saved on floppies and in no other place, that I can't access anymore. Worse, I've lost many of the floppies themselves over the years during moves and the occasional clean-out of stuff no longer needed. All that writing, all that thinking – saved indifferently and whether important to others or not – is just gone. Vanished. It made me sad.

If we stop making books out of paper and cardboard, bindings and ink, what will we do when the Kindle is outdated, like floppy disks are now? What if there's no simple way to transfer the electronic data from the Kindle to some newer, even better reader? Will those books, that data, simply be lost forever? The thought is sobering.

Therein lies my apprehension and my ambivalence toward the Kindle. I have several hundred books in my home now, collected over many years. A lot of them are new. A lot of the older ones I re-read every few years, and I enjoy them as much as I did the first time. As long as they live on my bookshelves, quiet, holding worlds inside them, I can enjoy and learn from them. I can take mind-journeys, bone up on a myriad of subjects, from birding to world history, and even teach myself to weave tapestries.

But if all those wonders are turned into strings of zeros and ones, there's a good chance I could lose access to all of them, someday. So could everyone, all over the world. And that would be the saddest thing of all.

4 comments:

dorki said...

Good thoughts, Wren. Since I was basically raised in a print shop, these changes are disorienting.

With some great effort, though, this new technology can overcome most of these problems. Things like Folding@Home, bit torrents, cloud computing, and readers like the Kindle and apps on the iPhone could provide pointers.

It will be some time before we can have our great documents and "refrigerator notes" last forever, but it should be doable.

The News Writer said...

I think it's just a matter of making sure that everything is transferred to the appropriate new media, And how that'll work, really, is a fairly standard format for plain text, which we pretty much have, between .txt and .rtf. Plus those guys who are constantly updating Web protocol pretty much make sure things can pass fairly easily from one version to the next. I never kept any of my old articles on disk. They're all in paper, where they had their lives. I may or may not get around to scanning them into the 'puter some day, where they can stay for a really long time.

I'm pretty enthralled by the Kindle and the Sony Reader as well. Sony has access to Googles massive public domain library, but so far I think Kindle has Sony beat in features, readability and that all important size. But I suspect a competition is in the electronic book readers' future, and maybe even more competitors.

As voracious a reader as I am, I never developed that love of actual books that I know so many have. I really don't care what I use to read it as long as I can read it. I'll sit at my computer and end up with a terrific backache to read something I find on the Web, be it an interesting article or a cyber-book. I'd love a reader. Just love it. And I already know my very favorite magazine is available for Kindle.

So, Amazon, I'm watchin' you.

Wren said...

Thanks for the comments, Dorki and News Writer. I'll get over my Luddite tendencies. This change is inevitable, really. I just hope you're both right, that older formats will be transferrable -- at least more so than they are now. Txt docs are fine, but they're often filled with gobbletygook, at least now. In the meantime, I'll still buy some of my books in paper, ink and bindings. But the Kindle is beckoning, truly a "someday" treat. I think eventually it will be as irreplaceable as our computers and the Internet are now.

Linkmeister said...

Wren, you write: "older formats will be transferrable"

Well, maybe. The recording industry has tried to keep itself alive in part by insuring that vinyl is not easily transferable; it's simpler to buy a CD of the same album than to acquire, install and hook up the software and cabling necessary to copy my old records to the shiny new things.

We're slowly trying to find a way to archive 60 years of family photos and worrying about the future accessibility of scanned photos stored on DVD disks. Mom the librarian knows a fair bit about archiving and has concluded that paper is still best; the problem is that storing 40 photo albums somewhere other than in the house to preclude fire loss just moves the storage issue elsewhere.