Feb 232010

The advent of e-books into a world previously populated almost exclusively by physical books is no more a threat to literate societies than was the book’s eventual replacement of papyrus scrolls. Sure the e-book is a different creature, with different characteristics, mainly because of its purely digital format. But I believe the e-book is mostly a good thing.

I’ve been enjoying mine. I can carry more books with me wherever I go now, than I’d ever be able to fit into my backpack in physical form. It’s a different experience, reading an e-book, and I’m not giving up physical books, not nearly, because they still have attributes I quite like. (The other night I dropped one of my physical books in the bathtub — a quick snatch got it back out mostly dry and certainly readable; my first thought was that I was glad it hadn’t been an e-book.) I’m traveling right now, as I write this, and I have two physical books with me, in addition to my e-book reader.

For the record, I feel no aesthetic aversion to the e-book reader, though I think the design is not “there yet.” It’s clunky to take notes on the version I have (a Kindle), and it’s not searchable enough yet for my taste, or of sufficient storage capacity. What I’d really like is something cloud-based, where I could store my entire library in searchable format, accessible from anywhere. But the current version is definitely usable.

People who make a living writing books will have to rethink things. I seriously contemplated, along with my coauthors, some variation on self-publication or open source publication for my last book, before settling on a conventional publisher. But I’m enjoying this rethinking, too, and for every difficulty I can think of with new models, I can think of another difficulty I have with the traditional model that new models might well eliminate. And beyond the possibilities for elimination of problems of traditional publishing lie exciting additional opportunities, many of which the imaginations of today’s Alan Kays have not yet delivered to us — I can’t wait.

And let me also say resolutely, I just don’t buy the position, so tempting for those of us over 40 (or even 35), that the way young people read (or don’t read, or read differently), or how much they rely on Google, is some sort of defect or dire transition that threatens literate society. It’s more likely a version of the age-old tendency, recurrent in every generation, to fret about “today’s young people.” The so-called digital natives do some things differently, but they also do a lot of the same things. I teach college students and have for a while. Some still read in detail and will do so even on an e-book reader. Some never did — and still won’t. Just about everything I see about them makes me hopeful and optimistic about a future of greater possibilities.


Robert D. Austin

Robert D. Austin is a Fellow of the Cutter Business Technology Council and member of Cutter's Advisory Board.


  3 Responses to “The Scroll is Dead. Long Live the E-Book.”

  1. […] Pro Tweets New blog post: The Scroll is Dead. Long Live the E-Book. http://blog.cutter.com/2010/02/23/the-scroll-is-dead-long-live-the-e-book/ cuttertweets – Tue 23 Feb 14:09 All Things […]

  2. thanks useful for us book loving Europeans who have yet to do this, iPad awaits

  3. I too have become a convert — conceptually. May the muses visit you and stay long, as you think about how this changes your world as a writer.

    But, as I plow through a task to screen 12-15 books to select one for a class, a strong resentment builds. Why would I pay $26 for an ebook, that is essentially a short term loaner, when I can pay $29 (with free SuperSaver shipping) for the hardcopy and then give it to someone else, or resell it, when I’m done? Is the economics of web distribution so similar to paper?

    Similarly for newspapers. During the Great Snow Storms of 2010 in DC, rather than be without the Wash Post for 3 days, I signed up for the trial e-version. Regular cost about the same as having it delivered. But, I can’t share the e-paper with my wife! It’s single thread!! Just imagine waiting to “pass” the whole Sunday paper? Yes, no ads, but few pics, and navigation is downright painful.

    No thanks, for the time being at least, I am buying paper. I’m waiting for some other “use case” to emerge that justifies the $500 in capital — and getting ever closer to listing my KindleDX on craigslist as I watch dust gather, sitting there unused on the counter.

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