Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Book Is Dead, Long Live The Book


Technology has a way of sweeping through a familiar landscape radically changing whatever might get in its way.  So often we reject such changes, not because they diminish convenience or choice or quality, but because they remove that very familiarity that provides us with a strange kind of comfort. Which photographer - old enough to have cut his or her milk teeth - did not at one time say that digital cameras could never replace the familiar solidity of rolled film and clicking shutter? Which avid music collector did not curse magical MP3s whilst caressing in his or her hand a real disc of pressed vinyl? Which book lover can run his or her fingers along a familiar bookshelf and dream instead of a shiny new Kindle?

And yet we all now carry digital cameras and welcome their functionality. We all now walk the dog with MP3 players plugged into our ears rather than making the poor creature pull a little cart loaded with a record player and a pile of 78rpm records. And, at some stage along the way, we may all snuggle down at night with the comforting feel of an eBook reader next to us on the pillow.

The advantage of the sweep of new technology is not that it replaces but it enhances. Before digital cameras, photography was for the specialist or the professional and thousands upon thousands of ordinary moments in peoples' lives went unrecorded. Look at any kid's Facebook page and you can see how digital photography has changed all that. Before MP3 players, music was a static experience and hi-fi and high-price were familiar bedfellows. In terms of books, technological change should enable us to enhance the publishing experience, democratise it, widen it and enable us to preserve more. The book is not dead : the book is merely changing.

These thoughts have been stimulated by two things going on in my life at the moment. Yesterday I discovered that the British Library had just published a special iPad edition of Lewis Carroll's  handwritten original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. In addition to be a stunning visual and literary presentation, this particular edition makes full use of technology by giving you the choice of either reading the book yourself or having it read to you. And if you are still not convinced it is worth adding an eBook reader to your early Christmas present list, I should add that - for a limited period - the new edition of Alice is available free of charge from the iBook store.

Wonderful as eBooks may be, there is still room for good, old-fashioned paper and pasteboard affairs that can physically sit on bookshelves. Technology will not destroy such things : it will simply enhance them and widen their functionality. And that brings me to the second thing that is occupying my time at the moment - my parents, Albert and Gladys. As I have mentioned before, this year is the 100th anniversary of their birth and I have set myself the challenge of publishing a little centenary appreciation of their lives. This is not something which is going to be read by anybody other than a close family circle. But when it is finished, hopefully, the two or three copies can be kept in the family, handed down the generations and thereby provide a permanent memorial to a special generation. Because it will be bound and professionally produced it should survive and not fall victim to changing technological fashions. Changing technology means that I can embark on such a project knowing that the total costs will be just a few pounds instead of a few thousand pounds. And just in case I am wrong about the survival of traditional books, I think I will publish it as an eBook as well.

32 comments:

  1. Well said. While I was an early adopter of the Mac (1984) I think we'll be late adopters of e-reading. We get our books from the library, and while we're limited to their inventory, our budget likes it. If the rumored e-book subscription model comes to pass, that will certainly raise the odds we'll be moving in that direction.

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  2. Often wonder what Lewis Carroll might have thought of modern technology. My guess is that if he lived today he'd never have dreamed of creating Alice in Wonderland! In case you're wondering why I'm interested, my other hat is as a literary biographer and I've written a biography of Lewis Carroll! (Yes, the US edition is available on Kindle) Jenny Woolf

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  3. Paper sits comfortably alongside digital; I am committed to my Kindle for holiday reading - 30 novels to choose from would require a separate suitcase. For reference books, I still think paper wins, but no doubt in a couple of years I will change my mind on that, just as I did regarding the Kindle and novels.

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  4. Amazing post and blog. I have enjoyed a lot reading it. I think you live with the goods of the past and the present in harmony

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  5. James : I have not come across the rumours about the subscription model - that sounds very interesting : I will keep my eyes open for it.
    Jenny : I have just tried getting it for Kindle in the UK (my iPad has a Kindle app) but can't get it. Is it available in the USA only do you know?

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  6. John : As always, you achieve perfect balance between tradition and technology.
    A-B-C : Thanks for calling in.

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  7. I have an Android-based smart phone, and one of the apps I got for it is the Google e-reader. I find it useful for books that are hard to find around here. And yes, I snuggle down with an e-book each night before going to sleep. I'm currently revisiting Laurie R. King's Kate Martinelli series; I'm on the second book - To Play the Fool.

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  8. e-book does have way more ease, which is what I chose for my first one. And always good to have a back up just in case traditional doesn't last. Which it will, just like movies on disc, they'll last, just may be few and far inbetween.

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  9. My husband is an avid reader and he loves his Kindle! And Alan, it makes for less books to be vacuumed on the shelves! lol. :)

    I love this idea of downloading original manuscripts, illustrations and all. That one is gorgeous!

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  10. Now, I have this image of being dragged, kicking and screaming, as they say, into the 21st century, with you patiently saying, "Teresa, you're going to love it."

    Maybe someday, but I recently went back to using my land line more and I've dreamed of finding a place to buy rolls of film (and of course a place to have them developed), and then there's the turntable for my vinyl I've been eying....

    If I ever change my mind it will have started on this day, with this thoughtful , well-written, and almost convincing post.

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  11. Now, ya'll can call this Ozark Farm Chick old fashioned but I'm still one of those antiques who loves the 'feel' and 'smell' while readin' a great book. I'm just a tactical kinda chick.

    From the happy (but old) hills and hollers of the Missouri Ponderosa, ya'll have a most wonderfully blessed and beautiful day!!! :o)

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  12. They aren't dead at my house yet! lol although my daughter who also has my love of the hard solid book in your hand and gazing at you from the bookcase or desk, did buy a Kindle..... amazing read loved your input! Thanks!

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  13. BTW: Tell us about "The Circuitous Route."

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  14. Teresa : Each year I publish a collection of my Blog posts - the 2010 edition was called "The Circuitous Route"

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  15. I am not a fan of eBooks but do always have and like hardbound or softbound books I can hold and feel and even smell. I usually have several open and in the process of reading. Which reminds me to post a story on aboutawl.blogspot.com describing a writer's pursuit of notebooks to write in. I should have that online today or tomorrow.

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  16. What a wonderful project your centenary appreciation will be! I wish I had found out more about my mum's life before she died.

    I am thinking of making a photo book for my elder son's 21st in a couple of years; a record of his childhood through to young adult.

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  17. Much as I love technology I sincerely hope books do not totally disappear.

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  18. I don't yet have a Kindle (my husband has), although I don't have anything against them, provided hard copy books survive. But I do have this awful image of a librbary of the future, where readers go in, produce their ticket, and have an e-book donwloaded onto their (hired?) e-reader. After, say, three weeks, that book will be wiped from their reader, a bit like returning a library book but without having to go to the library again. The library itself could be accomodated in something the size of the average broom cupboard.

    I do hope I'm wrong....

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  19. Alan, too bad you didn't come along before I pressed the delete button, though the photos still exist in their original form.

    I think that the book in print form will continue to exist as will libraries at which people continue to do more than read for pleasure. Kindles, e-books and other digital media will also continue to evolve, and each has a place in today's world and marketplace. I think your idea of a book about your parents to hand to succeeding generations is fabulous.

    How do you like your Ipad?

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  20. Nice post, Alan. I'm very comfortable with hard copy and Kindle co-existing in our lives. Thanks for the news about Alice.

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  21. A very well reasoned perspective, I think--just as I would expect! I really would like to get a Kindle or similar device, but even tho they're relatively cheap these days, they're a bit past my current budget. But when I think of all those free books on Project Gutenberg....!

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  22. Besides if it's on a reader, what'll I use to hold my back door open?

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  23. iPad one, Baino!
    Frances, our library already downloads e-books onto our readers, without even going there!
    Books and digital e-books coexist, just like LPs and MP3s, etc etc...

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  24. Good luck with the book about your parents Alan, but I warn you it is very time consuming. I let my brother write the family hsitory for each of mine but for their respective 90th birthdays I made them a photo book cebrating their ninety years, and added a few poems too. Very much in my Sepia Saturday style. It was a labour of love but it was worth it to see the look on their faces. Those books will be handed down too I hope.

    BTW downloading Alice as I write.

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  25. Thrilled! I'm off to download the book.

    I'm currently putting together a book of stories that my mother wrote about our family experiences and am also glad that the technology now exists to make it happen.

    Enjoy the venture!

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  26. A very nice way to show the balance between the up and down sides of technological progress. Things like Kindle are great for saving paper and space, but I'm one of those who likes the feel and smell of old volumes. It's just nice that it can save a little money to read things on the internet, too. Lately I've been reading old comics online that would cost literally thousands of dollars were I to attempt to buy the originals!

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  27. I'm undecided. I love real books, but I also love the convenience of having a dozen or so e-books on my personal communicator. Wherever I am - on holiday, in a plane, waiting for a train, I can pull out my mobile and have a bit of a read.

    I'm using the mobile e-reader primarily for 'classics' that are free and I should have read years ago, but never got round to.

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  28. I like holding a real book in my hands, but I also welcome the convenience (in theory) of e-books. I like the signs of age on an old book. You'll never get that on an e-book.

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  29. books are possibly one of the rare mediums where i feel nostalgic and not prone to technology. the sound of turning the page, the real sound!! the smell of paper andink, leather und so forth... someone gave me a few audio books, but i haven't tried them yet... i'm telling you, it's a tough transition for me in this regard. will my inner caveman ever evolve?
    :D~
    HUGZ

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  30. Well the book is still alive and well at my house..I am a bit of a book hoarder..sick isn't it? I guess if I had a Kindle or some such thing I could have lots of book shelf and drawer space.
    Your book about your parents sounds wonderful. A labor of love to pass on.. I commend you!
    I am behind at printing out my blog..like two years behind..it is on my to do list:)

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  31. I hope that the real, tangible book sticks around for a while longer, since you know how much I love the scent of old paper in second-hand book shops. It is an art form that must live on...

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  32. There's definitely a place for 'real' books AND ebooks. I enjoy both.

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