Protecting the world from ebooks
Okay, I’m not such a fuddy-duddy as to think such a thing is possible, no matter how strong my allegiance to bound books printed on paper or to what is unpoetically known as the “bricks-and-morter” bookstore. A friend of mine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, swears by his Kindle (traitor!), forecasting the day when electronic delivery of books will be the norm. Shuddering, I told myself he could not possibly be right.
Then came the chilling day I discovered a convenience store clerk reading on a Kindle between transactions. Cheerfully, he demonstrated the device to me with a zeal bordering on the evangelical. I despaired to see the thing was not as ugly or unwieldy as I’d hoped. That’s when I knew that the digitization of all human experience, including reading, would sooner or later triumph.
So I could not take much joy in the news that Barnes & Noble ‘s stock price slipped earlier this week after the roll out of its new electronic bookstore. Intended to compete with Amazon‘s Kindle, the industry leader, B&N’s ebookstore offers 700,000 titles, and its books can be downloaded not only to a dedicated reader, but also to the iPhone, the iPod Touch, newer Blackberries, and computers using newer Windows or Mac operating systems.
Barnes & Noble will also provide the titles for the new electronic reader coming from Plastic Logic late this year or early 2010.
Stock analysts were not impressed with the news, saying the electronic books market is too small to do much for Barnes & Nobles’ struggling bottom line.
But if recent history shows anything, it’s that sooner or later digital technology swamps all competing platforms, no matter how venerable. It’s only a matter of time — and I tremble to write these words — before my friend’s prophecy comes true.
I’m not going to waste time rhapsodizing about the superiority of the printed book — its tactile pleasures, its sentimental associations, its lovely smell (especially when properly aged, like fine wine) — except to say that it is a perfect technology. Or maybe I am: The book is more like the hammer than, say, the eight-track tape player: It cannot be improved upon. It’s portable, durable and perfectly performs the function for which it is designed. What’s more, a pricey electronic device is not required to read it, and you can share it with as many other people as you like without restriction.
Such arguments have been made countless times. What’s less discussed, so far, is that ebooks will inevitably kill the traditional bookstore. And that will be a cultural disaster of biblical proportions (pun intended). Bookstores nowadays not only serve as retailers, but as community centers, places where people gather for all kinds of activities. Enjoy it while you can.
And has anyone thought to ask where, once the bookstores are gone, will writers go on tour? Imagine attending an author reading at, say, the local At&t store, or Best Buy, or RadioShack. I suppose we’ll get used to it, but good grief. Brave new world, indeed.