Last month, Apple Computer Inc. released its latest gadget, the iPad. A touch-screen computer that can slip easily into an average sized shoulder bag, it serves as a portable e-mail device, an internet browser, a movie viewer and an e-book reader. With 10 hours of battery power, you can carry it with you and use it anywhere - on the subway, at work, in the library.
Book lovers have mixed views about the onrush of e-book technology, of which iPad is just the latest step. Purchasing a book will be cheaper and easier - just touch the screen and instantly download the latest titles. But, goes the popular cry, it’s not a real book, because it doesn’t have the feel, the look, the smell of paper.
At present, the paper book publishing industry is an economic and environmental disaster. Book stores, unique among retailers, can order as many copies of a book as they like, and then simply return all the copies that don’t sell. This means books are shipped all over the country, and then many or even most of them are shipped back, to be pulped and made into more books, to begin the cycle again.
The rise of giant bookselling monopolies like Chapters-Indigo has meant the death not only of many independent booksellers, but also a number of publishing houses. Big stores make huge orders at Christmas time, and publishers print more copies to accommodate them. When large numbers of books come sailing home in the new year, the publisher takes a nasty financial hit, and not all of them survive.
There is some hope for rescuing this situation in the development of print-on-demand publishing. Machines exist today that will print and bind a single copy in about half an hour. If your local bookstore had one of these, you could walk in, look at an electronic catalogue, and then go have a coffee, and come back and pick up your book.
The trouble with POD is that the machine itself is extremely expensive to purchase, and bookstores have no incentive to make that massive investment so long as the return system is in place. The iPad, on the other hand, retails for about $500, a one-time cost to the consumer that you will eventually make back in cheaper book prices.
So get ready for e-books. It may take years, or it may happen quickly, but sooner or later electronic reading will dominate the market. Paper books will get more and more expensive, and will eventually all but disappear. The chances are your mechanic has already made the switch, as paper shop manuals become a thing of the past.
But if you’re bemoaning the loss of the paper medium, you’re missing the point. It’s not just the way the book is delivered to you that is on its way out, it’s the book as we know it. Once books go electronic, they will never be the same again.
Consider the iPad. You touch the screen, it brings up something new. You’re reading a dense work, one that sends you to your dictionary every second page. Don’t you want the machine to provide that service? Touch the word and have the dictionary application flash up the definition. Maybe not yet, but it’s sure to come.
Once you get used to that, why not touch-pad illustrations? With a little imagination the software developers will be able to rig your machine so that when you touch a word the iPad goes online and finds a picture to illustrate it. When it can do that, why not a video clip too? Why not a suitable song, so that your reading has a soundtrack?
Of course, if you come upon a really good passage while you’re reading, you’ll be able to share it with a friend, or all your friends, by e-mail. And if you get bored with the book, a touch on the screen will set it aside and put you on the internet.
And if the book should die off completely, so what? Once upon a time, lovers of good old campfire storytelling probably gnashed their teeth over the development of theatre and dance, those upstart media that added spectacle and imagery to the experience of a story. They weren’t the same. You couldn’t curl up with a stage play the way you could with a good story. People still tell stories, but the place of the storyteller in culture never came back.
Books as we know them won’t survive the internet age, but stories will. The medium will change the way we tell stories. What we lose by this will be a very modern tradition - in historical terms, the novel was invented the day before yesterday. What we gain depends on human creativity.
If you can’t bear to think of the loss of the paper book, don’t fret. There are more books published every year than any human being can read in a lifetime. When they quit making them, there will still be plenty left around. I personally have boxes of them for sale, at a very reasonable price. Not as cheap as an e-book of course, but reasonable by print standards. If you want one, just send me an e-mail. I’ll get the message while I’m reading.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.