The e-Book Revolution

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I bought an iPad. Before you cheer or frown, let me tell you, I’m filled with an immense surge of guilt—not because my purchase left a hefty dent in my wallet, but because I have needlessly contributed to the e-Book revolution. As Thomas Hager explains,

Bottom line is stark: paper and ink books are on the way out. There, I said it. Printed books will still exist – like vinyl records still exist, in vanishingly small numbers, bought by collectors. Printed books – especially hardcovers — will become collectibles. Too many trends are working against print: (1) market economics (e-books are cheaper to produce, ship, and buy); (2) reader convenience (e-books offer immediate delivery, lower price, and bells and whistles like the ability to enlarge text); and (3) electronic infrastructure (a growing number of people are comfortable reading on little screens, they can do it on multiple devices (I just read my first book on my iPod Touch and the experience was fine), the little screens are getting better and cheaper and more attractive, the large-scale computing and communications systems are in place). And the technology just keeps getting better and cheaper. Three years ago, the first Kindle cost $399. Today’s improved version sells for half that. Eventually we’ll have screens you can roll up, put in your pocket, and unfurl as you lay on the couch, like the evening paper (but in full color, with video, web access, and no ink stains).

I initially decided to purchase an e-book technology after deciding to reduce my printing of massive amounts of pdfs (and thus contributing to the reduction of my carbon footprint). Although I can see the benefits of an e-reader, personally, there’s nothing like flipping through the pages of a well-work paperback, or being overwhelmed with the musty smell of a rare 18th century leather-bound. I wrote a course paper on the history of the commonplace book—essentially an elaborated scrapbook, emerging (possibly) in the fifteenth century. Much like today’s blogs, many commonplace books were collections of writing, documents, poems, drawings, etc., each particular to the author who composed the book. These books were fascinating glimpses into the lives of early modern people, but what really struck me about the commonplace books were the personalized approach writers took with paper and ink.

Writing in the sixteenth century required a different type of skill than reading; it is quite probable that sixteenth century folks could read, but not write. So for those that mastered both skills, it appeared many chose to write about what they knew best: their lives and the lives of those of around them, capturing not only key words of wisdom, but songs of the heart, woes of the mind, and concerns of the town. A far cry from Victorian private diarists, these medieval individuals were seemingly proud of their writing skills and strove to display those skills in the best means as possible: writing to share,  teach, and notify others who could not write or perhaps even read.

Early modern books were—and are—valuable in themselves. Adrian Johns’ The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago, 1998) provides a wonderful analysis of the cultural construction of the printing revolution and its impact both on readership and the value of the book, contextualizing the analysis within historical debates on the origin of the printing press, the role of the Stationer’s register and royal patents, and on the notion of literacy rights.

Printed books, in other words, have a rich and diverse history. Moreover, they create a personalized relationship between the reader and the book that I find missing in e-books (childhood trips to the library were always the highlight of my week!). I’ve never gotten on board with the new print paradigm, and am conflicted with my newfound contribution to the e-book revolution, but I do know that this is not going to stop me from visiting Amazon or my local bookstore and purchasing more print books to add to my growing collection.

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