Umberto Eco and the Future of Books

Michael Lew points to this transcript of a lecture given by Umberto Eco on the future of books a couple years back. He makes some important observations about e-books:

[B]y inserting a micro- cassette in the book’s spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. I have been told that some hackers, grown up on computers and unused to browsing books, have finally read great literary masterpieces on e-books, but I think that the phenomenon remains very limited. In general, people seem to prefer the traditional way of reading a poem or a novel on printed paper. E-books will probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with dictionaries or special documents. They will probably help students obliged to bring with them ten or more books when they go to school, but they will not substitute for other kinds of books that we love to read in bed before sleep, for example.

I think over the short term, Eco is absolutely right about this, and I want to make two important points about what he says. First, he argues that an e-book is still a book, just like a pulp paperback and a parchment scroll are. Some have argued that by computerizing text we have invented a new medium, inherently different from other media, but Eco argues that the two are the same thing. He also divides books into two categories, “books to consult,” like dictionaries and encyclopedias, and “books to read,” like novels and histories. He can see e-books taking over the “books to consult” market rapidly, as indeed they already have, but he suggests that paper books will be the preferred mode for “books to read.”

As an example, Eco points out that most of us can’t imagine editing a text without printing it out first. If we insist on printing things, that suggests that there really is a difference between print media and the electronic word. Here I have to agree: for any kind of extended writing, I do prefer a printout to a computer readout, but not for the reasons Eco gives. The problem with editing on a computer is that the spatial orientation of the text changes as I make edits. If I add a paragraph to page 4, then what was once on page 7 is now on page 8. It’s disorienting! With a printed manuscript, everything stays where it was until I print it again. I can write in all sorts of comments on the margins, and I still have the visual cues of the printed text to help me see what else needs to be done. Now I can imagine a computer interface that would allow me to edit in the same way on a computer, but I probably wouldn’t use it. Why? Because the old way of editing works just fine, and the new way would require me to learn a whole new set of commands just to use it.

For reading a book, however, I’m not sure Eco’s argument applies. The main reasons to use electronic versions of paper books are to save space and to make distribution cheaper. If I had an e-book reader that was as easy on the eyes as paper and as easy to carry as a typical printed hardback, then if it was cheaper than printed books, I’d use it for reading nearly every sort of book. The only type of book I might want read the old fashioned way is one I want to make exensive notes in. However, even in this case, I think the inconveniences of making computerized notes are outweighed by their advantages, so I might be willing to learn a new interface in order to make my notes electronically.

I have a lot more to say about Eco, but no more time today, so I think I’ll finish this post tomorrow.

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