So far, I have managed to avoid the presumed charms of the Electronic Book-Reading Gadget. This is not to say I haven't accumulated any electronically-formatted books: my current \ebook\ directory contains about two dozen titles, some hoisted from Project Gutenberg, some given me for review purposes, and some I've actually bought. (In a couple of cases, I've bought a paperbound edition and gotten an ebook of the same work thrown in as a freebie.) However, it's not always easy to think of them as, you know, books; the longest, an anthology of Emily Dickinson poems in PDF format, runs about 4.5 megabytes, about the same disk space as a three-minute pop tune encoded at an indifferent bit rate. This lack of perceived substance apparently makes them harder to equate with the bound books on the shelf on the opposite wall.

And there are still substantial advantages to the old, nonelectronic book:

  • The First-Sale Doctrine still applies. The cozy old store full of used books is never going to be replaced by a graphically-challenged storefront vending used digital titles. (Similarly, there are no used MP3 stores.) You buy the book and you decide not to keep it, there's nothing to stop you from swapping it for some other title you haven't read.

  • Batteries are not required. Admittedly, battery use on most EBRGs is not alarmingly high or anything, but if I have to stop reading all of a sudden, I want it to be because the tranquilizer just kicked in, not because I forgot where I left some damn power cord.

  • There seem to be fewer typos. Whereas some poor soul in the old days had to proofread every manuscript, nowadays the digital file is run through whatever it is they run them through, and the result is taken as correct whether it is or not. The Dickinson anthology I mentioned earlier has, inevitably, rather a lot of em dashes, and whatever they used to convert it to PDF converted none of them properly, which detracts substantially from the readability of the file.

  • An EMP can't touch them. If someone delivers an electromagnetic pulse of superhero-comics proportion, and all our electronics are turned to giant paperweights, at least we'll still have hard copy around. Mostly.

That said, I'll probably end up with an EBRG eventually, if only because at some point there are going to be titles that can't be had any other way. (And there are distinct advantages to being a late adopter.) Eventually actual books with bindings and covers and everything will become antiques, then extinct.

But someday, a long way down the road, I suspect we will see that Isaac Asimov, once again, called it correctly. From The Feeling of Power, 1957:

"Any numbers, eh?" said the general. "Come then." He took out his own computer (a severely styled GI model) and struck it at random. "Make a five seven three eight on the paper. That's five thousand, seven hundred and thirty-eight."

"Yes, sir," Aub said, taking a new sheet of paper.

"Now," (more punching of his computer) "seven two three nine. Seven thousand, two hundred and thirty-nine."

"Yes, sir."

"And now multiply those two."

"It will take some time," quavered Aub.

"Take the time," said the general.

"Go ahead, Aub," said Shuman crisply.

Aub set to work, bending low. He took another sheet of paper and another. The general took out his watch finally and stared at it. "Are you through with your magic-making, Technician?"

"I'm almost done, sir. Here it is, sir. Forty-one million, five hundred and thirty-seven thousand, three hundred and eighty-two." He showed the scrawled figures of the result.

General Weider smiled bitterly. He pushed the multiplication contact on his computer and let the numbers whirl to a halt. And then he stared and said in a surprised squeak, "Great Galaxy, the fella's right."

Which is as I have always believed: the man who can do something without resorting to electronics has an advantage, perhaps small but nonetheless real, over the man who cannot. I just hope I never have to prove it.

The Vent

  19 December 2011

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 Copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Hill