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The Future Of Reading – A Sceptical Note – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The Future Of Reading – A Sceptical Note

July 11, 2010 | by SRB


Colin Waters

Please! No more about kindles and ebook readers. Enough with iPads and apps. The reading public is being hustled into believing the future of books is electronic. It’s not. Ask yourself this – what is there that the many varieties of ebook readers can do that the traditional paper-and-ink version can’t? The answer is nothing.

Yeah, you might reply at this point that if there is a particular word or passage the reader is looking for, you can type what you’re after into the ebook’s search engine (or whatever they call it) and it’ll take you straight there. You know what? You can flick through a book, it’ll take longer, but you’ll get there in the end. And, to adopt Stevenson’s words, it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive: you might come across something else that’s interesting while flicking through the pbook (p for paper) rather than zooming straight to your destination on the ebook. It’s for that reason you should always use a good dictionary rather than look up a word on your computer’s equivalent. It expands your vocabulary.

My vision of a book does not include a power source. We had the farcical vision this week of The Guardian newspaper, on the one hand, congratulating themselves on their 2010 campaign to reduce carbon emissions while their Saturday literary section lauded the iPad and its apps for books. How about some joined-up thinking, guys? If we’re serious about reducing carbon emissions, why on earth are we introducing power-guzzling gizmos into a field of recreation and learning that doesn’t need it? Yes, it takes electricity to make pbooks in the first place, but it’s a one-shot deal. Once the book is produced, that’s it. Handle it well and it can last ten, twenty years. You need to juice up an ebook every time you want to look at it. Ridiculous.

Might I also raise at this point the issue of the ‘digital divide’? Governments across the world are worried about technology entrenching and indeed increasing class divisions. In Britain, there are justifiable fears that an underclass is being increasingly barred from taking part in everyday society or from getting a job through a lack of access to and knowledge of PCs.

If ebooks grow as popular as their manufacturers hope they’ll become, the digital divide will infect literature too. As things stand, with all the distractions available to young people, it’s hard enough to get kids into reading. There’s an argument that new technology will invigorate reading, but that will only ever be for those who can afford ebooks. For those who can’t, they may not want to use the traditional pbook format, any more than they would want to watch a black and white telly, listen to cassettes, write and post a letter, or make a call on a landline. Literature will become even more of an elitist pursuit.

I haven’t even mentioned the issue of piracy. Young people are already used to not paying for music and films they have illegally downloaded. There is a grave difference between defrauding a multinational entertainment conglomerate that makes your favourite TV show and filesharing a digital copy of a book. Most authors make little cash as it is. Piracy would degrade their earnings even further.


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