So far I see little evidence that e-readers begin to engage with "real reading", the kind those surviving marginal annotations in much-studied books are testimony to. Reading, those annotations show, is an active and social activity. It interacts with reading matter in creatively constructive and useful ways. The output from a reading of this intense and systematic kind is larger than the book itself. It extends to other, related books, and conversations with other, similarly goal-orientated readers.The electronic book offers me a convenient extra way to read while on the move. Given a good enough screen I am sure that I will use it, and I certainly like the idea of being able to buy and download difficult-to-locate texts at any time of the day or night. This may also be the device that will allow newspapers and magazines to survive as revenue-earning businesses. But I do not expect to stop using physical books.Books have what I think I have heard Warren Buffett describe (in the context of companies) as an 'economic moat': an innate feature which is hard to duplicate in rivals, and therefore forms a strong competitive advantage. You can do stuff with physical books which you simply cannot do with e-books, and therefore there will continue to be a market for real books alongside, as Jardine says, e-books. Both systems have benefits, and ultimately consumers will find how to adapt to the new technology. I believe it will also result in our appreciating more the benefits of physical books.A few days ago, Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution pointed (src) to a story which asked whether e-readers would wall off social knowledge (src). It concluded that there are quite a few ways in which the package (e-reader + e-book) is inferior to books, and that e-readers as currently operated will not be good for society's general well-being. The article's key assumption, though, is that e-readers will rise and displace books: without that assumption, we will simply use books and e-books where they have comparative advantage. E-readers will not displace books entirely unless they are vastly superior: in which case, why are we worrying?Concerns about losing physical books because there are certain things you can only do with them put the cart before the horse: the fact that there are certain things you can only do with physical books is in fact the guarantee of their continued existence. The mp3 file hasn't destroyed the CD (which in turn hasn't completely destroyed vinyl), the digital camera hasn't killed painting, and the Kindle won't kill books.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Will Kindle consign books to the flames?
That is, assuming the pensioners don't get them first (link). Lisa Jardine, in this week's Point of View on Radio Four, celebrates a history of book-reading and concludes that the e-book will not do for the paper book (link). Here is what I think is the clincher: