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The Techie’s Holy Grail: Can we really “E” a book?

Updated Thursday 12th February 2009

Do e-books have a future, or do we prefer the paper version?

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Among all of the changes in the publishing industry at the moment, one of the most salient for me as an academic writer and a teacher is the notion of e-books. It seems like the next logical step for technology, and it’s been on the horizon for well over a decade now. Interestingly, the longer we go without a viable e-book technology, it seems like an odd sort of confirmation that it’s beyond our capabilities to produce such a beast.

“Don’t worry,” some of my colleagues confidently tell me. “We’ll never give up our books.” And yet while e-books aren’t quite the everyday piece of technology that our mobile phones and laptops have become, they’re slowly starting to filter into the edges of the consumer landscape.

Old books Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Photos.com
Old books.
 

In the US, for example, Amazon released its popular Kindle electronic book almost two years ago (and it’s still only available there). It’s been so popular that it’s been backordered ever since. Perhaps most importantly, the company was able to garner endorsements from die-hard book traditionalists: Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, for example. Though the company won’t report details about its sales, various estimates peg the number of Kindles sold at around a quarter of a million. The fact that Amazon offers over 200,000 book titles for the device and free wireless access to its site over a proprietary mobile data network may have something to do with its initial success. Just this week, in fact, Amazon has announced a new version of the device. As is often the case with new iterations of technology gadgets, it is thinner, lighter, faster, and has a better screen and longer battery life than its predecessor.

The promise of the e-book is so tempting: it can hold several hundred titles in a package that, at 300 grams, is lighter and more convenient to carry than the average paperback title. Imagine an entire library in your briefcase or rucksack, and the ability to quickly and easily download a new title whenever you want it. What about for students? The notion of putting all the reading materials that a student might need for a course onto a single device is tempting for me as a teacher.

No worries about further expensive books, or problems with distribution of materials. And for a student, it could be a single easy-to-carry volume with all the study materials they might need. Finally, the economics of an electronic book are hard to dispute: they’re cheaper to produce and distribute, and they use far fewer resources to put the content into users’ hands.

But the Kindle, and other e-book technologies like the iLiad, which is growing in popularity in Continental Europe as a platform for newspaper subscriptions, have yet to match the tactile and visual joy of a traditional book. I never have to charge a book, or worry about its files getting corrupted. Even when I rest a cup of tea on the pages of a book, the resulting brown rings end up making it comforting and familiar, rather than the cause for a trip to the helpdesk.

the economics of an electronic book are hard to dispute: they’re cheaper to produce and distribute

And as the ever growing world of digital media struggles with rights issues, e-book devices have to take care of those rights too. Rights notwithstanding, I get a tremendous amount of joy from loaning a well-read book to a friend to enjoy. How can I do that with an e-book? What about libraries? Can we have e-book libraries? If not, how can we imagine life without that fantastic system of the collective acquisition of books for sharing knowledge with our communities?

Unlike some of my colleagues, I’m fairly certain that these issues will be negotiated and that e-books will come into the mainstream relatively soon. In a generation, I expect that e-books will become the norm, especially in education. But books, that 400-year-old technology that we have grown to love, and that often have pride of place in our homes, will not become redundant relics of years gone by. On the contrary: like many other technologies have shown, books will co-exist with their e-counterparts, and we will have the best of both worlds!

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