Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

January 2000

The Demise of the Book

Did TV kill off film? No of course not: thousands of films are made a year.

Well, OK, actually it did a bit: when I was a student there were dozens of cinemas in my town. Since then, at about the rate of one a year, they have slowly closed down, until now there are only two left. Now you can only see new films where you used to have a vast selection of old and new films. Of course video helped too: you can still see those old films, in the privacy of your own home, but for those of us who love the look and feel of films on the big screen there’s no hope.

Recently there seems to have been a rash of articles along the lines of “Whatever happened to the paperless office? Ha ha ha!”, as if someone had predicted a date for it, and now it’s definitively not coming. Why isn’t my office paperless? 1) The screens are not good enough to read from yet, 2) the people at the top say it is too expensive to move over to paperless and 3) it is actually quite paperless: I spend (for all the bad screens) hours a day reading at my screen, and if all that had been on paper, my room would be stacked to the ceiling.

So, will computers kill off books? Of course not. Thousands of books will be written every year.

There are people who moan that there’s nothing like the feel and smell of a lovely book, and I would like to invite those people over to my house to smell some of my books. Great if you’re heavily into dust. And the feel? Yellow crumbly paper, and I only bought them 10 years ago! Because of the rotten quality of the paper most books are printed on, I have had to buy a few of my favourite books two or three times.

So what are the advantages of real books. They smell nice, I believe, but we’ve treated that one. I recently read that an advantage of paper books is that a head-crash won’t destroy them, to which I like to reply: Alexandria.

What are the advantages of digital books? Let me count the ways. I don’t have to decide what to take on holiday to read; I just take my whole library. Colour is free: it costs no more to produce a colour book than a black and white one. Publishing costs are really low, and amateurs can publish books just as easily as publishers can. Books never need to go out of print again. Small language groups can afford to keep their literature available. I can backup my library and keep the copy elsewhere. It doesn’t cost me the 30% to 50% mark-up or the postage and import costs that I now have to pay to import books from England or the USA to where I live; in fact many out-of-copyright books are available for free already. When James Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake, he was going blind, so he dictated some of it. At one point someone knocked on the door (which the person taking the dictation didn’t hear). “Come in!” said Joyce, and that phrase became part of the book. So where does the phrase “Come in” occur in the 628 pages of Finnegans Wake? A digital book can tell me. I come home late at night and discover I only have an aubergine, some cheese and some tomato paste in my fridge. I don’t have to pore for ages through a digital recipe book to discover I can make aubergine parmigiana: it will tell me immediately. And we will never need to print large print books for the hard-of-sight ever again: you can make the print just as large as you like with a digital book.

Do I need to go on?

And don’t start about how good the interface is of a real book. If the interface of digital books isn’t good, make it good!

First published in ACM/Interactions, January 2000

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