Several years ago we had to decide what kind of piano to buy for our children. Electronic keyboards were attractive because of their size, economy and versatility. But most reviews I read compared them to “real pianos.” (“Sounds almost like a real piano.”) This raised the question: if you’re looking for a product being judged by its resemblance to another product, why not buy the one that sets the standard? That’s what we did. We bought, and still have, a sturdy Hamilton upright piano.
The current discussion surrounding Kindles and other e-book readers brought this to mind. So many assessments I read and hear about these products compare them to “real” books, usually unfavorably. Their resolution is not as good. Their graphics are anemic. You don’t know what page you’re on. Etc. The e-book’s admitted edge in compactness isn’t enough for a real book lover. For them, nothing will replace printed books. They’re irreplaceable; a superb vehicle for delivering text. Instead of asking whether printed books will disappear, we might better ask, “How will writing reach readers in the future?” Conventional books will certainly be one vehicle. E-books will be another. But their form will evolve into something quite different than books-on-a-screen.
Recall how automobiles evolved. Early versions looked like buckboard wagons with engines attached. It was decades before cars began to resemble a new product altogether. Similarly, when it was first introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, television was viewed as an extension of radio (it was even called “illustrated radio”). Early news broadcasters read copy before cameras, looking down at the paper in their hands, as if they were still in a radio studio. It took a couple of decades for television to become a medium all its own.
The same thing will happen with e-books. Today they look like conventional books on a screen. In time, just like cars and television, e-books will find their own form. Their length will vary more than conventional ones; they’ll be shorter on average, with more varied formats, more flexibility, more fluidity, and a wider range of prices. Short stories and novellas are better suited to the e-book format than novels. Articles and essays work better on their small screens than full-scale nonfiction books. E-books might be updated on a regular basis, and perhaps incorporate reader feedback, or author-reader dialogue. The possibilities are infinite, and intriguing.