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So the question is: Kindle and the future of books

March 31, 2009

Josh at Talking Points Memo muses about the impact of Kindle on reading and the availability of the printed word:

Following up on yesterday’s post on Kindle and electronic books, a couple quick thoughts.

1. First, as much as like the Kindle technology, it’s worrisome that one company — i.e., Amazon — could develop such a stranglehold on books. If I buy lots of books over the next few years for Kindle and someone else devises a better mouse trap, is my book collection held hostage to Kindle and Amazon? I’d figure probably so. Some universal or quasi-universal standards like DVDs and CDs would be nice.

2. My second concern is related but much more forward-looking. The common book requires a threshold level of eyesight and literacy in the given language. Given those two abilities in the owner, once a book comes off the publisher’s press, it takes on a life of its own. And as long as it’s kept on a shelf, relatively free of moisture and out of reach of small children, even a cheap pulp book can easily last a hundred years. Quality bound books, meanwhile, can last many centuries. Today, though, I can’t easily access even papers I wrote in college, which is a touch less than twenty years ago, because they’re on floppy disks that few computers can any longer read and written on programs (remember Word Perfect?) accessible only through imperfect conversion utilities. If big swathes of book publishing go the electronic route, how many ‘books’ will have only a short window of existence before they get marooned in derelict and outmoded technology? Tomorrow’s equivalent of Betamax, 8 Track and and now videotapes. Physical books, for all their other shortcomings, can still be read today and tomorrow regardless of technology progress or, as the case may be, regress.

I’m certainly not the first one to think about this. I know that librarians and institutional archivists have given this problem a great deal of thought. And it’s actually one reason why big institutions aren’t able to move that quickly with new technologies. Because they put a lot of time into thinking about the probable lifespan of the technology and how easily the data will be able to be ported from one storage medium to the next. But quite a lot of information and books and other artifacts of human intellect only see the light of day in the go-go world of market-driven technologies and never make it to those hallowed halls. And what will become of that stuff?

I find the Kindle technology both exciting and worrisome. I happen to be one of those people who like the feel of a newspaper and look forward to the ritual of reading it, hearing it and feeling it in the way I have for quite a long time now. I also read books by the pile and keep them around me on heavy and overstuffed shelves both in the home and, when I worked in an office, there, too. But I do know that our habits and rituals can be changed–I look at The Atlantic Monthly much more than once a month now, by checking it on line almost every day–and, after a period of adjustment, we don’t quite recall why we were ever tied to our previous way of doing things.

Even taking our ability to adapt into consideration, though, Josh’s concerns about the essentially limiting effects of the Kindle technology–requiring users to use Kindle exclusively in the future in order to have continued access to the books they purchase now, the unknowable future technologies which will make books held in the current form obsolete–raise significant questions. (And what, come to think of it, is going to happen to the hundreds of hours of music I have stored on my computer if new and incompatible audio storage methods become available?) As with most new technologies, there is a period of adjustment and sorting out. And I do think that Kindle, or devices like it, are at least part of the future of reading. So the question is, what will reading look like twenty years from now, and how do we prepare for it today?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. john permalink
    March 31, 2009 2:59 pm

    The sony reader is an alternative to the Kindle that does not require the use of a proprietary format for its device.

    • March 31, 2009 7:23 pm

      Unless it leaves the tips of my fingers black after I finish reading the Philadelphia Inquirer, it just isn’t the same.

  2. kodo permalink
    May 28, 2009 9:06 pm

    Okay – I have so many books I can barely see my night stand, let alone use it for the purpose for which it was intended (a place for my wine glass.) I would “rent” books from the library, but, I like to reread books. So, I would enjoy a kindle. Shrinking my pile to just one flat computer screen. With the bonus of a reading light built in. And, reading with one hand. Ahhhhh, I see a wine glass in the other.

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