I first played with Sony’s Reader over a year ago, when they displayed it at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was a revelation: none of the flickering screens, plasticky feel or pointless gadgetry of previous ebook readers — this was easy on the eye and beguiling to the touch.
Combine that first impression with the news that publishers like HarperCollins are digitising their entire catalogue, and it sounds like the 21st Century might be about to hit the print industry.
After all, faced with a two-pronged attack — from internet companies like Google and Amazon on one side, and electronic book devices on the other — it wouldn’t be difficult to spin out a message of doom for the printed word. The threat of digitised books could do to the publishing industry what iPods and MP3s have done to record labels.
The Sony Reader is a great device, and the ability to read books on a computer screen is really useful. But wait, I don’t think we’re about to see the death of books. The reasons are easy to see.
Books are one of the greatest inventions of all time. The feel of a book, the texture and even the smell are things of beauty. It’s very difficult to emulate that simple, magical experience with a few computer chips and a screen. Books have handy little added extras that you don’t get in a digital version — like making notes in the margins, bookmarks or as gifts. None of these things take software; just a sharp pencil or a spare moment.
However, there are plenty of areas where the digital world can offer all kinds of benefits to writers and readers alike.
Google and Amazon are coming up with ways for you to actually look inside a book before you buy it. In a way, it’s just like internet search engines have turned a spotlight on obscure but fascinating websites.
Hardware like the Sony Reader might not replace your entire library with one single memory card (where’s the intellectual peacockery about that, eh?), but they could make life ten times easier for, say, pupils who cart piles of books to school everyday. Or students who fork out discombobulating amounts on textbooks every term. Or on workers who can slip a dozen reference books inside their briefcase without needing to do weight-lifting practice first.
This isn’t a time to panic about the future of print; it’s time to embrace what’s wonderful about it and realise that it could get a whole lot better. Books have been around for thousands of years — they’re not going anywhere.