More on the future of sustained narrative

I was wavering yesterday on whether to predict the book’s demise in 20 or 30 years. I decided to go for it, and chose 20. What the heck, let’s be controversial!

Scott Esposito called me on it right away. I was asking for that, I suppose. I should probably clarify. I’m not predicting the complete demise of the printed book. Of course people will still want books. People still own horses, over 100 years after the introduction of the automobile. Collecting books will be more like a hobby, like buying old ’78s, or, yes, horses. People will buy books more for their significance as objects than for the information they contain. There are still going to be printed books, but they will be an insignificant part of the market compared to the sum of their replacements. What will be difficult is quantifying exactly what those replacements are.

Here’s an interesting question: what proportion of the reading Americans do today is done on printed paper, compared to electronic texts? I would say that I personally have already crossed the fifty percent threshold — I do more than half my reading on the computer. I wonder how many others are like me? This is not to say that I never read printed text. When I’m reading something especially difficult, even if it’s a PDF, I’ll print it out. This allows me to take notes more easily and take advantage of the increased legibility of paper. If I have a choice of an online versus paper text, I invariably choose the paper version for the same reason: I read my Atlantic Monthly in print, even though my subscription also entitles me to read the online version. Certainly in 20 years, we’ll have cheap electronic displays that are better than an inkjet printout, so my proportion of print reading will decrease even more.

In 20 years, my kids will be in their 30s — a generation raised on electronic textbooks, who don’t know a world without the World Wide Web. Do you think they would prefer a printout to an e-text? The median age worldwide today is 26. That means that half the world was born after the personal computer was invented and under age 14 when the Web was invented. In 20 years, no one under 50 will remember a time without the Internet.

My 11-year-old daughter groans when a research assignment requires her to use a book as a source. She barely knows how to find a book in the library, but she’s a whiz with Google. The problem with books, she points out, is that it’s hard to get the pictures from books into your PowerPoint presentations. This is a child whose computer time is limited to 1 hour a day.

There are some caveats. People may cling to paper books to avoid DRM, much the same way many people don’t buy music from iTunes or Napster because of the copy protection involved. It’s much easier to share a book today than it is to share a song from iTunes. However, if eBook readers are literally $20, I could imagine people sharing books by simply trading the readers themselves.

I think the practicality argument will eventually lose out. Even though cell phones are a pain in the neck, with all the recharging and hidden costs, with the gaps in service, with incompatibility with this or that computer, people still say they can’t live without them. People are unbelievably tolerant about the limitations of their technology.

For that matter, people are incredibly tolerant of poorly designed books. People buy books with running heads that offer no information other than the book’s title. They buy books without indexes, with illegible typefaces, with quarter-inch margins, with bindings that fall apart or make it impossible to hold the book open without a vise-like grip. And don’t even get me started on bad kerning, bad hyphenation, let alone bad proofreading. I just finished reading a book called The Design of Everyday Things. It was all about how badly most things are designed. The book’s title had been changed from The Psychology of Everyday Things. Guess what? No one had bothered to change the book’s dozens of internal references to its own title.

The standard that e-books will have to meet to exceed ordinary books is actually quite low. The problem for e-books is much more likely to come from other genres: from television, from movies, from video games. They will have to be more than edutainment, which has been said to “combine the entertainment value of a bad lecture with the educational value of a bad game.”

Here are a couple ideas that just might work. What if every e-book combined the printed transcript with an audiobook? That way, you could start reading the text in “print” form, and then seamlessly move to the audio version when you need to drive to work, or weed the garden. This would give texts a huge advantage over other forms of entertainment, because they would be substantially more portable. As I noted in my review of the audiobook version of The Outlaw Sea, listening to an audiobook when you’re not doing something else is rather boring — it proceeds too slowly to maintain interest. If you could switch back and forth between the two versions as necessary, this problem would go away.

Or how about a different form factor for bedtime reading? There’s nothing more relaxing than reading a book before going to sleep — except trying to figure out a comfortable position to hold the book and still be able to read it. How about a hands-free display integrated into “eyeglasses,” allowing a reader to assume any position while reading?

Something I’ve mentioned before is an e-coffee table book. It would have to be clearly not a computer, because looking on someone else’s computer is sort of like opening up the medicine cabinet in the bathroom of a friend. In addition to the traditional professional photography accompanied by sparse narrative, it could also include the host’s vacation pictures, and perhaps also control the home audio system.

These are just a few ideas for ways that e-books may begin to filter into our lives over the course of the next 20 years. I still have more to say about all this, so stay tuned.

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3 Responses to More on the future of sustained narrative

  1. Anne says:

    I’ll admit that I’ve fetishized the book-as-object sufficiently that they are unlikely to disappear from my home. And I’ll add, too, that that automatic vacuum you featured a few weeks back is a pretty lame robot. So, personally, I love books and more widely, technology doesn’t change as fast as we hope, I don’t think.

    Nonetheless, I’m interested in what you say here about pleasure reading. It chimes in interesting ways with David A. Bell’s comments on the continuing difficulties for academic reading in electronic forms. That is, it does seem totally right that light pleasure reading (blogs, magazines, gossip, newspapers) and preliminary research (textbooks up to the undergrad level, facts & data). What about reading Kant? What about reading Woolf? Or Wordsworth? What do you think will happenend to the sustained grappling with texts that are beautiful or difficult or both?

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