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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.

Comments

I agree with a lot of the points you made in your essay. I agree that what people want to read is determined by their location (i.e. people like to read books at night when they are in bed). I would just like to add that another determinant of what people choose to read is the type of person they are and the state in life they are at. For example, college students might find eBooks or Kindle useful because they have busy lives and simply do not have the time to indulge in hefty books. On the other hand, a stay at home mom might have more free time and therefore can read books. As you said, eBooks are not replacing books but just providing a new way for people to receive the core information they would have gotten from reading books.

Regarding the notion that reading articles doesn’t take away the scholarly aspect that usually is associated with books, I would have to partly agree and disagree. I agree that books (especially dealing with academic subjects) seem antiquated at times. They set a good foundation for the subject, but are not up to date as some articles one would find online. On the other hand, books dealing with academic subjects are often scholarly, because they have been edited. I believe that online articles have a lot of room for invalidity, mostly because it is easy for anyone to write and post articles. Even articles by journalists are not deemed scholarly; therefore it may be hard sometimes to find a good online academic article that is scholarly.

I really like your position on this topic, and think you make several very good arguments. Like you, I am hopeful that electronic devices like the Kindle never completely replace actual books. You also make a very good point that there are certain times when it might be beneficial to have many books stored electronically in one device, and I can agree with that. As a college student, I know how heavy and cumbersome multiple textbooks can be, so in that way the Kindle does sound very much like a “godsend”. Yet I agree with you that having a fun new electronic device, especially one with internet access, could be incredibly distracting. As someone who also grew up loving to read, yet tends to spend far too much time procrastinating on the internet, I feel like you hit it spot-on when you wrote,
“This (Kindle 2) 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 used to- plenty of ways to prevent you from finishing that novel.”
I feel like the Kindle is much more something to be grouped with the Iphone, IPod touch or the G1 in that it’s more of a neat, impressive gadget that you can show off and essentially play around with all day long. (I can certainly see myself spending hours attempting to download every childhood book I ever read just “because“, searching the web with it’s Wi-Fi or adjusting the screen’s grayscale just to see which of the sixteen shades looks best) It seems to me that really, only serious passionate readers would be the ones who appreciate the Kindle because it allows them to hold their extensive literary library. That’s not to say that I don’t love reading, I do and I always have, however, I know that when it comes down to my own recreational reading, I much prefer “to be immersed in one book, not thrown into a web of information”.

I think you brought up some great points in your position. I’m an avid reader and love everything about printed books, how they smell, feel and the sound of turning a page. But from reading your position I can definitely see the benefits of a service like Kindle. I always bring way too many books when traveling or waking around campus that just weighs me down, and the electronic book would take off some weight. It would also benefit the environment. I wouldn’t want real books to ever be completely obsolete, but maybe printing fewer copies or editions would cut down the paper usage and save some trees! I think that services like Kindle just give people another option, I personally would rather not stare at a computer screen while reading a novel, and would rather curl up with a good book. But I can definitely see how society would greatly benefit from services like Kindle. I’m on the fence about the whole books going electronic, I agree with how the e-books would detract from the purpose of a book. And then I agree with the above comment that online articles are more liable to be false, and not as scholarly as say a book that’s gone through 7 or 8 editors possibly more. The internet is definitely subject to not telling the truth, or falsities. But overall I think that the ebook is a step in to the future, and how our learning system will change.