On Ebooks, or The Future is Already Behind Us

A version of this this article appeared in The Reader magazine, issue 37 (Spring 2010). I should note here that the brief for the piece was to write an introduction to ebooks and ereaders, so my more tech-savvy readers here may find this over-simplistic. Also, it was written early in 2010 and things have changed a little since then. For one thing, I have almost completely switched to Apple’s iBooks app for reading on my iPod Touch, though the books I read haven’t come from Apple (yet). I’ve put it here, rather than making it part of my article archive, simply because it will date quickly. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, August 2010.

Before I begin, let me just get one thing clear: electronic books are not a new idea. They have been around since 1971, way back in the era of vinyl records, the Vietnam War, and flared trousers. That was the year Michael Hart typed up the Declaration of Independence and made it available to users of the Sigma V mainframe computer at Xerox’s Materials Research Lab at the University of Illinois. The Declaration was the first ebook in what became known as Project Gutenberg, an online depository of 30,000 or more public domain ebooks typed and proofread by users and offered up free in a variety of formats. So ebooks have been around for a long time, but it is only at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century that large numbers of readers have begun to take them up.

Up to now two things have been standing in the way. It’s not only that reading devices had to become good enough and cheap enough to replace ‘dead tree’ books, but people had to be comfortable with carrying electronic gadgets around: we had to change too. Now though e-readers are good enough to replace paper books, at least in some situations, and the mobile phone long since cleared up the problem of gadget carrying for most people. The era of the ebook is upon us and since art and technology go together like beer and crisps it could prove to be an epoch-changing moment in literary history.

Currently ebook reading devices fall into three broad categories: dedicated devices such as the Kindle, Sony Reader, and Nook, whose primary purpose is reading; then the smart phones, running software such as Stanza, which organises ebooks, storing and presenting text in a format suited to the small screen; and finally the ‘Tablet’ category, represented by Apple’s iPad and a raft of similar devices from other less glamorous manufacturers.

Dedicated ebook readers, exemplified by the Kindle, and the Sony Reader, all have one thing in common: their screen. These devices seek as far as possible to replicate the experience of reading a real paper book and do so using a technology known as e-ink. Unlike a computer screen, which is backlit and projects light out at you with an intensity that can give you eyestrain, e-ink technology provides a screen that is ‘reflective’. Just like paper you need to shine light on it in order to see it. The quality of the screens varies between devices, but in decent light all give a fairly good approximation of a printed page. They allow you to place multiple bookmarks, to make short notes, and, in the case of the Kindle, to synchronize the device with ‘Kindle’ software on other devices automatically, so whatever you happen to have with you—Kindle, computer, or phone—you always open the ebook on the same page as you left it.

I can’t help feeling though that these limited devices, easy on the eyes as they are, will probably turn out to be a dead end or at best a niche. Page turning is often slow, colour is possible but still quite expensive, and there remains the problem of buying another device to have with you which does only one thing. They do have great battery life, but how often do you find yourself weeks away from the nearest power outlet? And if that happened a lot, would you buy one of these things, or a paperback copy of Moby Dick?

All the dedicated ebook readers really have to offer over the old tech paper book is their lack of bulk: they can contain hundreds, if not thousands of titles. That’s handy enough. Had the Kindle been available in the 1980s, when I was at school and university, I probably wouldn’t now have one shoulder slightly lower than the other. But it doesn’t contribute much to the future of writing. In most situations paper books are good enough, so you have to do something more than just replace them.

And that brings us neatly to ‘smart’ phones like the iPhone, Google’s Nexus One, and a myriad of other phones and handheld devices that feature relatively large touch screens and allow you to install software known as ‘apps’. My own experience with these devices is quite longstanding and mostly positive. I read books on a Palm handheld as far back as 2003 and in 2008 I began using an iPod Touch for for the same purpose. I don’t use it for all of my reading, but I am able to go away for a weekend without a bag full of books. At last reckoning I had over 300 books downloaded and ready to choose from, packed into a device that fits in the pocket of my jeans.

Software like Stanza, and the Kindle application developed by Amazon, make buying, downloading, and reading books very easy, given the limitations of a screen smaller than the palm of my hand. Where these devices really come into their own though is when books themselves are made into standalone applications, as happened with Wolf Hall not long after it won the Booker Prize. Book ‘apps’ include not only the text of the novel itself, but critical reading, biographical material, images,  video and up to date news about author tours and other events; they turn books into more than simply an engagement with text and page—though they offer that too—but a broader experience of the book and its context. For magazines and newspapers this kind of approach is even better, since the small screen is more suited to occasional and short reading sessions.

The third category of device goes some way to resolving these issues. When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPad device in January 2010, he did so from beneath a graphic of a road sign, pointing to ‘Technology’ in one direction and ‘Liberal Arts’ in the other. Apple, he implied, stood at the point where the two met. Apple isn’t the only one, but the bigger screen and more book-like size and heft of the iPad makes it and other ‘tablets’ a much better prospect for reading books than their smaller smartphone cousins. The additional benefits of a device that besides books does email, calendaring, web browsing, as well as all kinds of other media, make ‘tablet’ computers an alluring prospect for readers in search of something less bulky than a bookcase and more appealing than a dog-eared paperback. Offering the possibility of books containing more than just text and still pictures, our definition of what a book or a magazine might be is also set to change.

I am enthusiastic about ebooks and optimistic for the future opening up for readers, writers and publishers, but none of this is without drawbacks. Digitization brings with it fears of copying and theft and such fears lead executives in large corporations to make stupid mistakes in their efforts to protect ‘their’ content from those who might use it without paying. We have already seen Amazon remove books from Kindle devices without informing the owners of those Kindles that they were about to do it; the irony was that it did this to copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, hinting at a future where history really could be rewritten or erased. And then there is Digital Rights Management, which makes life a misery for anyone hoping to play bought and paid for ‘protected’ music or films on ‘unauthorised’ devices. DRM is being applied to ebooks too and the worrying thing is that DRM usually ends up inconveniencing honest people—the best customers—more than it does the content thieves.

But all of these things are the workings out of a technology and a market in its infancy. What bothers me more are thoughts to do with the familiarity of physical books in my own life and what the world might look like with fewer of them about. Like many readers of this magazine I live in a house overflowing with books and have trouble imagining what it would be like without them. I adopted ebooks as an adult so I’ll never be entirely comfortable with them and I am a little bit older than that first ebook created in the computer lab at the University of Illinois. So naturally I worry that without physical books around children won’t be able to take one down from the shelf and ask their parents “What’s this one about?” The books will all be hidden in digital files on the parents’ book reading devices. But that’s not how it will work out. My daughter, aged 6, already makes little connection between physical media such as DVDs and the images on the television screen. She knows that the content exists ‘out there’ and has nothing much to do with what you use to get at it. She was utterly appalled when she discovered you couldn’t easily select ‘chapters’ on a VHS tape and she’ll probably be equally horrified by the idea of taking up wall space with books she will never read again.