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It will happen just as surely as the index card catalogue made its way to little-drawer heaven. Many of us bibliophiles adore our books made of paper, though they be hard, soft, glossy, matte, and sometimes yellow. That's why their transition to electronics may proceed in the manner of radio giving way to television without ever disappearing altogether, and possibly enjoying a special-purpose renaissance. It could also go the way vinyl gradually lost all its shelf space to digital recordings, existing now only for the rarity collector. For the next decade or two, the book you hold in your hands may be somewhere in between.
As you noodle on this, beware the radicals, my friend. Pundits that lived in a hollow tree in the 1990's predicted that by the year 2005, no bookstore or library of paper books would exist. Their first reason was that all the baby boomers were spoiled by television. Furthermore, everyone alive was at least exposed to moving pictures in their childhood, and thus knows that it's better than reading. New writers, so it goes, had best restrict themselves to devising dialogue and camera angles. I don't know about you, but I have never seen a Stephen King story that was not vastly more delightful on the printed page than it was on the silver screen.
Indeed there has been a kind of decline in the status of books. We were reminded on the death of Norman Mailer that he bemoaned the change in his lifetime. More and more people are having books read to them on audio systems as they commute. These versions are sometimes a bit simplified. But in my neighbourhood, the already large Barnes & Noble just quadrupled in size, mostly filled with books made of paper for people who want their gaze to caress the page.
The second time pundits tried driving a stake in the pulpy heart of our reading material, they reasoned that everyone would be reading their books on the Internet by 2005. They failed to take into account the small matter of how the human eyeball works. The difficulty has to do with backlighting, and little dots, and none of that ever having been part of our natural selection in eons of evolution. I work on my computer almost all day, and as night falls, I feel like I've been punched in both eyes.
A pilot program forcing this kind of e-book into at least one Dayton, Ohio school in 1999 crashed and burned. The electronic reader involved was revealed to be nothing more than a poor man's laptop.
We needed more than small devices and self-lit screens to make e-books practical. That's why it's 2007 and the "digital text platform," as Amazon dubs it in their generic contract, is only now making its debut. Amazon's Kindle™ seems to be the market leader, with a cutting edge screen that some say is slightly easier to read from than a book, certainly no harder. Sony puts out a product called Portable Reader System™, also using spanking new technology with a paper-like screen. Both price them like new game systems with Amazon at the high end, and Sony lower (but close because Sony pushes a costly warranty). Both are sold out at the moment. I wouldn't cart away my bookshelves just yet, but I am putting one of my precious eggs in the digital text platform basket.
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