Thursday, April 23, 2009

The E-Book

The Wall Street Journal published an article by Steven Johnson which outlines the transition we are undergoing right now with digital books.

Every genuinely revolutionary technology implants some kind of "aha" moment in your memory -- the moment where you flip a switch and something magical happens, something that tells you in an instant that the rules have changed forever.

The latest such moment came courtesy of the Kindle, Inc.'s e-book reader. A few weeks after I bought the device, I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, dutifully working my way through an e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel. After a few taps on the Kindle, I was browsing the Amazon store, and within a minute or two I'd bought and downloaded Zadie Smith's novel "On Beauty." By the time the check arrived, I'd finished the first chapter.

Johnson says this type of technology will change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways. It will radically change the way we relate to books, the way we've related to them for 500 years.

He says very soon you'll be able to archive "every book you've ever read -- as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship."

Now that books are finally entering the world of networked, digital text, they will undergo the same transformation that Web pages have experienced over the past 15 years.

With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.

To me this sounds so exciting I can't wait to get involved. My only problem is I don't have enough time to read everything I'd like to now, but I guess that's what they call a positive problem.

What's your opinion? Do you think this is valuable technology? Do you think we're in a transition period right now with the same kind of impact as the Gutenberg period 500 years ago? Do you sometimes think the technology is advancing too fast?

Please feel free to leave a comment.


  1. I'd love it. Sadly all the E-books I've seen are extremely expensive loaded with goofy features like WiFi.

    Still I've spent my morning commute reading legal findings on my phone, and I've also spend my time reading the latest hardcover from my favorite author. Certainly flipping pages on a hard-back is a BITCH on the Subway when you're either standing or cramped in a seat.

    Also given the size of PDFs and other such file compressions one could fit POUNDS of books in one reader. Great for relaxing vacations, or long road trips!

  2. MikeB,

    We may be in agreement on E-Books.

    They will revolutionize the way we relate to books. I love the idea of being able to keep every book that I've ever read.

    True story - about 4 moves ago (living in apartments one tends to move alot) my crew revolted. Said that until I got rid of a few books they wouldn't help me move again...ever.

    I didn't realize how many books I had until that time. I used copy paper boxes to pack them. In a 19 foot UHaul truck, I complete packed the portion over the cab and then had enough books to build an entire row - from side to side and top to bottom -- of those boxes.

    Being able to keep all those books would be wonderful.

    I read E-books on my Palm Phone and enjoy doing that but there is still something about holding a hard copy book that will make sure that media never fully goes away.

    I think another great invention that will change stores/books will be Print On Demand. I think that Libraries will adopt this technology especially once it catches on.

  3. I think ebooks will completely change the world. But they won't reach their potential until we reform our copyright laws, and make media producers change the way they look at the product.

    Right now, you won't archive every book you've ever read; the books you read now are loaded with copy-protection schemes that will eventually make them obsolete as the technlogy, services, and companies offering those services change (and this isn't fantasy; computer geeks much smarter than I am have remarked that they've eventually lost access to every copy-protected file they've ever bought). This will change when the industry lets go of its paranoid stranglehold and settles on a simple, open file type and sells its media in an unprotected form. This isn't fantasy, either--folowing customer sentiment, Amazon and iTunes now sell all their music as plain, unprotected mp3s.

    Also, right now the future of information is at war with our unjust and antiquated intellectual property laws. The need for copyright is perfectly reasonable: a creator has the right to profit from his work, and that's hard to do when a big bargain publisher can instantly start offering your work for half what you can afford to sell it for. Acknowledging that, this country started out with a copyright system that protected work for 17 years after its completion.

    Think about that. Everything produced before 1992 should be freely available, the property of our culture. But through the 20th Century, in the interest of media companies, the copyright term has extended to something like the life of the creator plus 75 years. You _should_ be able to search Google for the text or video of anything produced before My Cousin Vinnie, but instead you can't reliably get a corpus any further back than the Edwardian era.

    Copy protection will die a natural death, but reforming copyright laws will take some serious popular will.

  4. "they won't reach their potential until we reform our copyright laws, and make media producers change the way they look at the product."

    +1. For all the noise they make, the Music industry (and now the movie industry) is hardly hurting, dispite their goods being VERY easily pirated (Hell my Sister, who called me over to install a damn sound card, hardly a computer hacker, has a large library of pirated DVDs and Music. It's FILTHY easy).

    Meanwhile the wife and I have extensive libraries of Books, CDs, and even vinyl (which my wife is slowly converting to MP3 with suprising ease).

    The industry will have a huge BOON if they just accept that their product will be easily stolen.

    Hell the print industry has enugh theft just from booksellers returning covers to publishers for a refund, then liquidating the books illigally on the cheap.

    Bob, I hand off or donate most of the books I read (honestly will I ever bother reading the latest Spencer Novel again, when Robert Parker will write another one in a few more months that will be just as good *or bad, if you don't like his PI formula*) still I keep several on hand just because they're too good not to hang onto.

    The wife has her collection too. Let's just say our Library is on the 3rd floor of Casa Weer'd and I burned some serious calories lugging those bastards up there!

    Still I don't know if I ever got an E-Copy of the compleat works of Chuck Paulanuik, or Stephen King, I'd ever want to dump my hard-backs.

  5. Have you ever read _Orality and Literacy_ by Walter J. Ong? It's an interesting read given your questions at the end of the post.

    The uses and means of communication via language since humans first began talking (time-frame on that highly debatable per linguists and evolutionary biologists) have literally changed the structure of our brains.

    Third-wave literacy (computer mediated literacy) will only continue to dominate and shape how we use and consume language.

    I like the idea of Kindle (altho' as grad students, it is way beyond our means). Saving lots of trees and whatnot.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Let's just say our Library is on the 3rd floor of Casa Weer'd and I burned some serious calories lugging those bastards up there!

    A friend helps you move. A true friend helps you move a body. A supreme friend helps you move books. ;)

    When we moved into our current apartment, we had to stack the book boxes against the walls-- the boxes that were dropped off in the middle of the rooms were bowing the floors.

    Even with ebooks at their full potential, I'd keep a whole lot of paper. But damn, would I like the option of converting three quarters of 'em into electrons.

  7. "A friend helps you move. A true friend helps you move a body. A supreme friend helps you move books. ;)"

    Reminds me of the addage: "A friend will bale you out of jail at 2am, a TRUE Friend will be sitting next to you saying 'That was $&*#ing Awesome!'"

  8. Skye, Thanks for the tip on that book. The only problem is I'd have to log on to the Amazon site, click the mouse about a dozen times, put my credit card number in there and after all that, wait for it to come in the mail. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

    I need one of those new-fangled e-books.