13 May 2012

The Age of the e-book

Books have been a source of knowledge, imagination, intellect and enjoyment for centuries. For the majority of their existence, they have not been available to everyone. However, the technology of the twentieth century conquered this, and now everyone can access the vaults of knowledge stored in books, not just upper-class Victorian men. The technology of the twenty-first century, however, threatens to overwhelm the book, with e-book sales rising exponentially.

It is undeniable that e-books are useful: I have often read a short story on my iPhone when waiting at a bus stop. They are portable when compared to a solid, heavy chunk of paper comprising novels such as War and Peace. They are also more environmentally friendly, not having to use trees or ink for production. Furthermore, 53% of those who buy e-book readers state that they now read more books than they did before. As a student of English, I welcome such expansion of readership, as well as the increased possibility of publishing for writers.

Despite this, however, the paper book still holds firm in the hearts of many, including mine. They don’t need recharging; you can scribble notes in them; they are easily accessed at good prices; and they don't normally cause significant eye-strain. It would be a crushing moment when, just before the climax of the story, the light on your Kindle goes out, dying, and taking with it the story that had just completely captured you. It is a traditional fondness that is hard to explain, but the loss of the book due to the over-whelming power of this technological transition would indeed be a catastrophic blow.

Despite the advantages of books, the easiness of an e-book seems to be persuading people to invest their money. Kindles start at £89; relatively cheap for similar electronic gadgets and significantly more than most books. Still, one can store many narratives (which are usually cheaper to buy electronically) on this one device, making it easier to access a multiplicity of books at any one time. It is, therefore, no surprise that the USA is currently marking an increase in e-book sales of over 100%, and a small decrease in paper book sales.

As well as paper books, libraries will also suffer with the e-book revolution: who will go to a library to check out a book when you can download one in seconds onto your digital device?

E-books will eventually obliterate the book just as digital music downloads have obliterated the CD. Does it matter? To most, probably not; but the lovers of books will empathise with me when I say that it is the smell of the freshly-printed book; the feel of the crisp pages; the feeling of ownership when you clasp the newly-obtained set of pages in your hands. Reading, in my view, is as much about this sensation as it is about reading the author’s message to you. The Kindle, iPad, and any other e-book reader cannot provide this, and instead give the reader a harsh, clean screen of light presenting lines of words. 

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