I’ve seen a lot of discussion about E-books recently, but I think that this article by Stephen Johnson in the Wall Street Journal is the best at summarizing the benefits and problems with E-books. In a nutshell, he lists the following ways that the E-book will change how we read:
- We will be able to purchase books much more easily.
- Searching the contents of a vast library of books will become incredibly easy.
- It will become harder to read an entire book, for two reasons: (a) each book will be so annotated that one can jump from one book to another with little effort; and (b) because it is so easy to purchase another book you can jump from book to book as the mood hits you.
- Books will become more interrelated, as it will become simple to link similar and cross-referenced books to each other.
- Books will become more known by specific paragraphs and sentences, as these will be what comes up in Google searches.
- Reading will become a much more social endeavor.
Regardless of the consequences, it seems clear that the E-book is where we are going. The day will come when the majority of people do all their reading on an electronic device, be it a computer, cell phone or reader such as Amazon’s Kindle.
(An aside: one of the things I admire about the Amish is that they consider the full-range of consequences before they embrace a technology. I don’t necessarily think they always make the right decisions, but one can’t help but think that this attitude would be helpful in today’s “if it’s new, it’s good” world.)
I will admit that I am a devoted bibliophile. My idea of a perfect gift is an Amazon gift certificate so I can buy (usually obscure) books. I love to sit on the couch and read a good book, and part of my enjoyment is holding the book and seeing how far I’ve read and far I have to go. I don’t get the same experience with an E-book.
But my biggest concern is the third consequence I listed above: the fact that it will become harder to read a book straight through due to the ease of being able to read something else. I can see the value in being able to view a referenced source, but I’m afraid that it will lead to fewer and fewer people being able to sit down and read through an entire book. Most (good) books are a complete whole – one must read the entire book to get the full value of it. Reading 20% of the book does not necessarily give you 20% of its value; only when the entire book is read is the overall point made.
All that being said, I’m not anti-E-book (in fact, I originally read that Wall Street Journal article on my cell phone). I am especially excited about the possiblities of easily building a “matrix” of similar books based on the books you have already read – this could give me a reading list a mile long. I just hope that the value that undoubtedly will come from putting all books in electronic format will not be offset by our society’s increasingly short attention-span.