In defence of the book part 3: history

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The third reason why I don’t think books are going to go away in a hurry is that they have been around a long time.

This, obviously, is not a cast iron defence. Lots of ancient practices which have survived for many years have been swept away overnight by modern technology. Take the horse and the car. People used the horse for thousands of years before the ‘horseless carriage’ came along. In fact, I’ve seen this used as an analogy for the eBook, notably in a long and interesting essay by John Siracusa. Here’s what he writes:

Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word “horse” for “book” and the word “car” for “e-book.” Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.
“Books will never go away.” True! Horses have not gone away either.
“Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome.” True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don’t go everywhere, nor should they.
“Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can’t match.” True! Cars just can’t match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn’t. I’m sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a “horseless carriage”—and they never did! And then they died.

The trouble is the analogy is flawed. Cars replaced horses not because they were a bit better, but because they were a quantum leap forward. The car was much faster, more comfortable, more efficient; it had greater comfort and greater capacity.  eBooks, aren’t actually, that much better. What they offer is mass storage, not a better reading experience. You don’t read books any faster on a Kindle.  If we revert to the horse/car analogy, eBooks are not cars. They are just a cheaper, more portable kind of horse.

If we look at the technologies which have been replaced by their digital equivalents in recent years, they have all been recent technologies. Recorded music has been around for a century or so, the CD for considerably less. DVD, TV much more recent and, anyway, the technology is the same – watching on a screen – so it’s no real change. Significantly, listening to music from an mp3 player or from a vinyl album is still the same experience. It still goes through my amplifier and comes out of the speakers. Similarly, watching DVDs is essentially, the same experience as watching a video.
But reading from a screen is not the same experience as reading from a page. Admittedly, the eBook readers are trying to make it so. That is why they’re so keen on the same terminology, with all the page turning and the e-ink and so on.

It seems to me that, with the technology as it is at the moment, it’s going to be much harder to dislodge five hundred years of the printed book and two thousand years of the book as a format. It’s not impossible, but the book, as an object, is much  more ingrained in our culture than the other media. To have that displaced is going to take a massive leap of technology. Will that leap happen at five o’clock tonight? Doubt it, but you never know.

Interestingly it was Christians who championed the early book form – known as a codex – when people were still using scrolls.  And, appropriately enough, Here’s a bit from one of my books about it.

So, three reasons why the book won’t disappear in a hurry:

1. It’s a much more physical object than other forms of media
2. We respond to and read a book in a different way than we do to online print.
3. It’s got two thousand years of cultural history.

So what do eBook readers offer? I’ll offer my thoughts about that after tonight’s cataclysmically earth-shattering event.