When I got married, we decided to use my grandfather’s Bible for the reading. It was given to him in 1922, and was already a decade old. It’s survived poverty, bombing, children and living in Manchester. The text is still clear, none of the pages have fallen out and the binding’s holding up perfectly. It also has a full index and nice, helpful numbered pages as well as being a convenient travel size. All in all, for a piece of technology coming up on its centenary, it was ideal.
Now, by way of contrast, let us consider Amazon’s latest effort to revolutionise the world of reading: the Kindle “electronic book”. Amazon have grabbed some fantastic press over this, with acres of coverage for the launch. Sales have also, apparently, been brisk, with the Kindle selling out on its initial (no doubt limited) release. Of course, the Sega Dreamcast did similar business, and look what happened to that…
There have been criticisms over its looks - understandable, considering it would have been rejected by the Blake’s 7 prop department for being too cheap and tacky-looking. And unlike an mp3 player, you can’t just copy your existing books onto it. This looks likely to be a major setback in encouraging uptake of electronic books of any sort, as it’s a costly inconvenience to have to download works that you already own just for the pleasure of reading them on a device that’s even more embarrassing to expose on the train than an adult edition of Harry Potter.
On saying that, there are markets where a device such as the Kindle would be, if not invaluable, certainly welcomed. The legal industry, for one, would benefit from a reduction in the huge number of tomes currently required by practitioners. Students could also benefit, enabling a huge number of reference works to be carried around at once, with the initial high asking price ($400, around £195, or 39 copies of ‘1984’) being offset both by convenience and hopefully the ability to download books at a greatly reduced cost to their paper versions.
For the average reader though, I don’t see that electronic books have any advantages over the traditional type. They’re certainly less durable and less replaceable – a lost book can generally be rectified with a few pounds and a trip to Oxfam, rather than the high cost of replacing a Kindle. And while portable, they are no more so than an average paperback.
But there is also the aesthetic aspect to consider. Books have been a popular, successful design for centuries, whether disposable entertainment or impressive piece of home decoration. They are recyclable and extremely durable as well as being highly tactile and easy to use. And after the robots have risen up and kicked us out of our homes, we’ll still be able to read them or, at the worst, use them for fuel.
I just don’t believe that electronic books will ever replace traditional literature, Newsweek hagiographies notwithstanding. And I’m pretty sure that my own grandchildren will still be able to interface with the same Bible I did if they want. Of course, whether they’d be more impressed by an electronic book – or PlayStation or iPhone – is quite another matter.