Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Another Take On The Future Of Books

Michael, a British reader of this blog, sent me an email yesterday morning, directing me to the BBC "Start the Week" program that ran at 9:00 AM Monday. He said guest Margaret Atwood had been asked about the future of the book.

I have enormous respect for Margaret Atwood, her talent, her courage, and her honesty. I was grateful for Michael's email and happy to tune in to the program while I ate my lunch.

Ms. Atwood directed her attention to the question of why computers would not replace books. She had a list of reasons: You can't comfortably take a computer into the bathtub or bed, it's neurologically harder on your brain to absorb material presented on a screen than it is on paper (the definition isn't as crisp), computers don't lend themselves to contemplation, and it's hard to manuever from page to page on a screen.

She did acknowledge computers are "very, very useful to students doing research," and admitted that mankind loves to play with new toys, but pointed out that you can burn books if you're cold.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the program and would never have the temerity to challenge Ms. Atwood's position.

Instead, if I could, I would change the way we look at the question. I don't think it's an issue of either/or. Rather, I think we are lucky to be in a period when our choices are greatly expanded.

We can choose to see a movie in the theater, on Pay-for-View, on DVD, or on our computers. Even though I don't subscribe to cable television, I download cable programs all the time--some for free and some for $1.99. And I read books in print, through library downloads or via online purchases.

No method of service delivery has innate superiority over another. The important thing is that people READ. How they read doesn't matter a whit; it's silly and a bit pretentious to pretend otherwise.

Ms. Atwood's age (67) and distinguished career explain her affinity for the printed book. Let's face it, anyone who grew up loving to read is happiest with a book in hand. But I can think of a few good reasons why we might welcome e-books in the future:

• Convenience—It’s easier to carry an e-book reading device with a dozen books uploaded to it when traveling on business or vacation than to carry the actual hard copies of the same books.
• Storage—A memory stick can contain hundreds of books—books that don’t take up space and that don’t require dusting, or boxing and a strong back to move.
• Ecology—Electronic books don’t require cutting down forests of trees or using enormous energy to process and manufacture printed material.
• Ease of updates—Electronic textbooks and encyclopedias can be updated quickly and easily.
• Economics—Electronic books are cheaper to publish and don’t require warehousing or shipping expenses.
• Freedom of expression—Electronic transfer of books or physical transfer of memory sticks makes it easier to smuggle banned material past repressive regimes to those anxious to read it.

Instead of taking an either/or approach, let's celebrate the fact that we have choices and put our energy into helping literacy programs expand reading to people and places who don't have our privileges.

Thanks again to Michael for a very interesting program.

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