We call it Book(TM). Now try to find the plug...
As I started reading "People of the Screen", I was immediately reminded of a recent Penny Arcade strip on the same subject- and in three panels it sums up why books won't be made obsolete so easily. New devices and services like the Kindle are constantly being released and updated, and they deliver compact storage and speed of information that paper books can't match, but I don't see them ever fully replacing traditional books.
After all, the book is wireless, user-friendly, has a lag-free touch interface, and never needs to be recharged. Kindle attempts to match these benefits by mimicking them with an e-paper screen and more recently with Kindle 2's improved button layout- but why mimic something when you have the original already? As stated in Christine Rosen's article, the Kindle boasts a wireless internet connection- first with wi-fi and now Kindle 2 taps into almost ubiquitous cellular data networks. This is great for getting more books, but it also detracts from the purpose of a book. Internet access, as almost all college students can attest, is one of the most distracting things available today. The world's combined knowledge at your fingertips and all of it is formatted and condensed for the rapid consumption that we're all so used to- plenty of ways to prevent you from finishing that novel.
And with that, the Kindle no longer seems like a replacement for books. It's a fantastic way to store, expand, and read a large collection of them, and especially for the student with their own library of heavy, expensive textbooks, it could be a godsend. But it's only worth the cost for certain markets and in certain situations. For example, I'd much rather carry a Kindle with me than a collection of novels or textbooks while traveling- but most people who read at home would much rather curl up with a good book than a wireless reading device. They want to be immersed in one book, not thrown into a web of information.
So if I'm right and eBooks won't entirely replace our old paper tomes, then what effect will eBook readers have? After all, the action of reading will inevitably evolve as it already has- from the space-free Latin writing of Rome that had to be read aloud to be understood to the mumbling reading of monasteries to today's silent reading and short electronic articles encroaching on the realm of full books. Personally, I already read much more online than I do from books. But I read extensively online and I found myself saying "I saw something online recently..." and then describing it in conversations more than I'd like to admit. So from my personal experience, even though reading has shifted from longer books to shorter articles and posts, it hasn't caused me to think any less seriously or academically. In fact, I believe I've become much more knowledgeable about technology and the environment (the subjects of the articles that I most often come across while using the browser plugin StumbleUpon) than I would have in a time where books were still the most popular vessel for casual learning.
Still, I can't say that I've gained this tendency without books. When I was in elementary school (and of course before the internet was so ubiquitous), my parents constantly encouraged to me to read, and read to me often when I was younger still. So I was deliberately given a habit of reading from early on, and even with that, I find myself thinking all too often that I should read more books. I start them without much problem, but it takes me forever to finish a book- due in large part to distractions online. I'm currently in the middle of 3 books, and have been for an embarrassingly long time. So, despite my upbringing, I have the short attention span and appetite for quick, uncomplicated information that are so often referenced when writers explain the negative effects of the information age.
So, from my experience, the onset of the internet and services like Kindle hasn't just transformed reading. They've transformed how we absorb information. An increasing number of us overwhelmingly prefer it bite-sized, concise, and nicely formatted in Web 2.0 fashion- a far leap from the densely worded, thin pages of War and Peace. I still don't believe that reading will be transformed in a way that eliminates the use of books. When you're sitting on a couch or bed with an hour or more to dedicate to reading, a book is just more comfortable and convenient than anything with a screen and network connection. But reading and the way we learn will still continue to evolve with technology- this much is inevitable.