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« Child Abuse | Main | Why Mommy Is An Idiot »

The End Of Books?

It may be in sight.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2006 06:31 AM
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Brookheiser makes a fairly flawed presumption that iTunes/MP3's have already replaced CDs. As someone who buys an average of 10 CDs a month, even with an internet connection, I can't really say that it's an accurate statement. I also don't see it happening for a long time, as long as we still have disc-based media for videos, because those players can also still play audio discs.

I also prefer to read my books on paper, because I can sit in a chair with them, or lay on a couch and read. There's something that's more visceral and connected about reading a book on paper that I don't think I'd be able to let go of. This is a big part of the reason that the "paperless office" has never really materialized; people prefer to have a presentation in their hands that they can leaf through at their leisure, rather than have to navigate with an interface.

When I was researching bar-code scanning software for home PCs last year (an effort to more efficiently track my CDs and books), one of the things that I recall reading was how there are still a number of people that prefer to have shelves with media on them, to display their collection for themselves or others to see. I certainly fall into that category. My brother, however, would rather put all of his CDs and DVDs into a flip-binder with the liner notes, and get rid of the bulk of the cases. Those are the people that would be more likely to adopt e-books.

If e-books take off (and I have little reason to believe they would completely fail), it would still take quite some time to completely phase out paper-based books, and I don't see that happening in Brookheiser's lifetime, let alone my own.

Posted by John Breen III at February 23, 2006 07:30 AM

I'm a bit of an early adopter in this field -- I bought a dedicated e-book reader about 5 years ago and loved it. I replaced it with a nice PDA (which had a better backlight and full color screen) three years ago.

I have two problems with switching over to ebooks though. First is the cost. Most books cost just as much for an electronic copy as for the hardcover edition! Since I buy almost all my dead-tree books in paperback, that came as a bit of a shock to me.

Second, my wife reads a lot of the same books I do, but has no intrest in reading them on a little computer screen. That's pretty much lead to me buying all our books on paper, and hanging the reader up on the shelf for the last year or so. Maybe these new e-ink based readers will spark her intrest.

PS - An aside about pricing. Baen (the publisher) does a wonderful job of pricing e-books. They give a bunch of them away for free, and sell a lot of other for a reasonable price, all in DRM-free open formats.

Posted by Jerry at February 23, 2006 07:37 AM

Not if I have anything to do about it.

Posted by Andrea Harris at February 23, 2006 07:56 AM

Seems we've been hearing about this for a while, but it does look quite likely to happen in the next few years (though I have my doubts that it'll be Sony that brings it to us--that's a company that does not yet get the new media). I really look forward to this. I'd cheerfully chuck all of my books in favour of something like this. In particular, I'd have loved it in university if one of these could have replaced the three hundred pounds of textbooks that I lugged around.

I really think this is a promising technology for blogs as well. There are many good essayists out there on the Internet, and it would be great if their work could be moved to a more readable medium. I'd enjoy the chance to peruse the latest Bill Whittle work, for example, on the bus on the way to that soulless vacuum I call work (sorry, got off track slightly). I could imagine a service much like podcast subscriptions to deliver said material straight to the reader, and I think something like that would make a much more interesting use of the technology than a mere replacement for the paperback.

I would have to say that I'm already rather comfortable with reading things off computers. I've been doing it for many years now. Indeed, I had a lovely notion for an ideal reading set-up: An easy chair, a high-resolution LCD screen mounted on a positionable swivel arm, and a little widget that I could hold in one hand to allow me to scroll or flip pages. I wish like the dickens someone would come up with a package like that.

My final thought is that all media seems to be going this way. If your concern is about what to do with all that empty shelf space, I might advise looking into collecting some objets d'art to fill the gaps.

Posted by Peter at February 23, 2006 08:05 AM

I might advise looking into collecting some objets d'art to fill the gaps.

Good idea! Might I suggest a copy of Tufte's beautiful book, Envisioning Information?

Posted by Mike Anderson at February 23, 2006 08:41 AM

I am sort of attached to my bookcases; books on various subjects neatly, and some not so neatly, lined up row by row. I donít think a glorified etch-a-sketch holding hundreds of volumes would give me the same pleasure as standing in front of my bookshelves admiring my collection.

No thanks Sony; Iíll pass.

Posted by Cecil Trotter at February 23, 2006 08:54 AM

As far as replacing hundreds of pounds (in weight) worth of textbooks with computer-readable pages goes... Without a pressure-sensitive touch-screen to read the textbook on, there would be no way to highlight, take notes, or do anything else other than READ the book.

No thanks. I'm too visual and spatial of a person to replace a book with a static computer page. I need to be able to make notations in my books, highlight relevant passages, and have a sense of "right page" and "left page" to help my memory if ideas.

As far as portable blogs, they already exist. All you need is a mobile web browser (cellular, not WiFi), which are more and more common these days.

Finally, Cecil seems to be in the same boat as me. I don't see myself giving up my collections for an electronic storage solution. Peter sounds like he'd be happier hanging out with James Lileks, who seems to prefer electronic storage.

Either way, as I mentioned before, as long as people like myself and Cecil exist, there will be a market for paper, CDs, and DVDs. Those are "on demand" enough for me.

Posted by John Breen III at February 23, 2006 09:03 AM

While I like books, I've thought that writing in them or highlighting them was sacrilege from an early age, and have never been able to bring myself to do it. I can barely bring myself to dog ear a page.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2006 09:10 AM

Against writing in books? Rand should think of future generations. His cogent marginalia might make the book a significant item at a future Sotheby's auction.

I can see an e-book that permits highlighting and notations. I can see one that has its video display on elements about as thin and flexible as a paper page, one that would permit something like browsing and page flipping.

On the other hand: I'm on a scholarship interview committee for a large State university. We're right in the middle of the Fall 2006 group. One question we ask is, "What have you read other than things required by your school." After listening to these kids, I despair for our future.

Posted by Bernard W Joseph at February 23, 2006 09:47 AM

Jon B III and Cecil,
I too buy paper and discs. And I agree with John there is something satisfying about a book in my hand.

But I am becoming a heretic. I just got a Dell Axim PDA, almost excluively for eBooks. Someone gave me an eBook collection. I am finding it easy to read, scroll through and easy to carry around.

I also am finding the increased lag time from hard bound to paper back a pain. I read too much and too quickly to be able to buy hard bound or to wait for my turn at the library. My reading beast is too voracious. At half the cost of HB, eBooks will proobably be the way I start to go.

I will not however be getting rid of my old books. They have and will become worth more with age. That will increase if more people go to soft copy books.

Posted by Steve at February 23, 2006 09:50 AM

eBooks lack a visceral connection. I have to go with Heinlein's Stone family on this one: Books smell good.

Posted by Andrew Ward at February 23, 2006 10:30 AM

I have a Dell Axim and found the ebook reader disappointing. My complaint is that it doesn't display enough words, so I feel like I'm spending too much time moving the pages along. However, I enjoyed the benefit of a built in book and night light in one handy system.

I given up most reading for audiobooks. I have a Creative 40GB MP3 player with a large library. I listen during my commute and especially on flights. So, I see the decline of paper books occurring in that respect.

Still, I almost always have a paper back book that I carry around. PDAs and MP3s require electricity, and I can't always keep them charged. A paper book doesn't have that problem.

Rand, like you, I was trained not to ever write in books. I had a few friends and professors try to lure me into the habit in college, but the unrealistic thought that it would discount my resell value kept me from writing in the margins. I still can't bring myself to dog ear.

Bernard, have you read JK Rowling's Half Blood Prince?

Posted by Leland at February 23, 2006 11:51 AM

I had a few friends and professors try to lure me into the habit in college, but the unrealistic thought that it would discount my resell value kept me from writing in the margins.

Yes, me too. Textbooks were expensive, and while I kept my engineering texts, I expected to resell some of my less valued ones, and figured that I'd get more for them if they were unmarred. As you say, it's not clear whether that was the case. But in any event, to this day, I wouldn't think of writing in a book.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2006 12:04 PM

I should also note: you, I was trained not to ever write in books.

I don't ever recall being trained not to do it. I just recall, ever since I understood the concept of a book, and their power, always being repelled at the notion. It's a visceral thing, even when I see someone else do it. I was always amazed and fascinated by people who would highlight or make margin notes. It was like watching cannibals, to me. Well, not that bad, but you know what I mean. Actually, this would be a good topic for a post.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2006 12:08 PM

Writing in and highlighting in books is bad, though I do admit to dogearing pages.

The solution is sticky notes, with appropriate comments or arrows to the text in question.

Posted by Rich at February 23, 2006 12:45 PM

Ok, not like you... but I was trained. Grade school books were "state property" (A few actually referred to them as State rather than School District or School). The school treated writing in school books like any other graffiti written on school property. If caught in the act, punishment could be anything from corporal punishment (yes, my school allowed it with parental consent, which my parents gladly signed) to suspension. Indeed, at the end of term, each returned book was carefully checked and the student fined $.10 for every mark found, including purely accidental marks in the margin. Damaged covers and spines came with larger fines.

On face value, the concept was to preserve the books for reuse year after year. This saves money which theoretically kept taxes lower. Yet, some classes actually have new textbooks (in terms of content) every 2 to 3 years. Considering the diligence of some teachers, even when they knew the books were not being used the next term, I think it was a shakedown.

Further, the effort to protect books lead to the school district offering book covers for free. These were not simple white butcher block paper (though definitely butcher block) nor nice pictures of hotrods or my little pony. The free book covers were full of paid advertisements for local businesses within the School District. The instructions for folding were such to assure the advertisements were viewable. Of course, for us future engineers, we always managed to reverse the folds and get to blank side to show, thus allowing us to print the book title legibly rather than camouflaged within the ads. My daughtersí school district simply charges the students directly for clear plastic book covers (I guess that saves on marketing and special printing).

Now you know why my Kindergarten experience with writing in "Workbooks" never caught on.

Posted by Leland at February 23, 2006 02:36 PM

Ok, not like you... but I was trained. Grade school books were "state property" (A few actually referred to them as State rather than School District or School). The school treated writing in school books like any other graffiti written on school property.

Now that you mention it, you're right. I'm sure that was the case for me as well, but I don't recall it (perhaps because I had no need for the lesson--it seemed obvious to me that one doesn't write in books).

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 23, 2006 03:01 PM

Bah! The "e books will replace dead tree books" is so retro futurist. It didn't work and it won't. I even prefer paper comic books over screen depictions.

Posted by K at February 23, 2006 07:32 PM

**NO**, and particularly not from Sony. Who wants a book which becomes completely unreadable when the DRM license file is accidentally corrupted/the DRM verification server is offline/the DRM company goes bust etc. etc. etc.?

Books can be re-sold, shared, given away, they're format-independent, don't need recharging every three hours, they don't keep tabs on who reads them, and properly cared for they can last for centuries.

I'll stick with paper for the time being, thanks.

Posted by DL at February 24, 2006 04:41 AM

Give me paper, please. No on/off switch to fail, no 'chip creep' or disk failure. No batteries to replace/recharge. As Andrew mentions, the smell of (some) old books is close to divine.

Posted by Stewart at February 24, 2006 05:52 PM

I believe it was Isaac Asimov that observed that once we go from books to electronic media we may lose a whole generation or more of knowledge. His point being twofold... we change our technology so fast we won't still have the readers for most of our old data (of course, once all data on the planet can fit on a single media that may not be the issue he envisioned.) Second, we can dig up and read paper in landfills for thousands of years but electronic media may not hold up as well.

Posted by ken anthony at February 24, 2006 09:50 PM

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