...and thus started a new era where books are chopped up into bits and bytes and traded and distributed electronically. One can always count on Apple to reinvent the wheel, redesign it better and repackage it as the 'must have gadget' of the season. Now that there are enough players in the field to constitute a quorum, an 'open season' has been declared on books. And the nature of the game is what the marketing suits would always love to pronounce it - a paradigm shift. True, the tectonic plates that have held the worlds of printing and publishing together for all these centuries are slowly but surely shifting. What has essentially remained the same from the days of the parchments down to today's world of recycled paper, is undergoing a radical shift in the delivery process, to do away with the hassles of chopping up the trees, crushing them into pulp, processing the pulp into fine grade paper, and instead deal in nothing but ether. With practically every other computer and publishing company jumping in the fray and contribute their might into 'killing' paper (aah! the irony!), in the process boasting their credentials as an environmental friendly green company, it is fairly apparent that books, as we know them, are soon going to be buried, epitaph prepared, and eulogy already written. And before long, electronic readers are going to be as ubiquitous as miniature music players that are currently firmly plugged into the ear buds of the world. Well, what's not to like about them - they are compact, portable and even good looking, making them utterly utilitarian and quite a fashion statement at the same time, a feat that is rarely achieved. There is no inconvenience of turning the page, folding the dog ears, breaking the spine, and more importantly, stowing away the book in some remote corner of the shelf after being done with. There is also, and this is for the possessive yet shy kind, no hassle of lending the book and then worry eternally about its return to the rightful owner. And in case of publications of risque kind, there is no going to extra lengths of trying to be secretive of hiding the book in secret nooks of the bookshelf, which automatically takes care of the privacy concerns in one click. So what's not to like about them - ease of use, storage and disposal, convenience of sharing, with the added benefit of secrecy. The same reasons that had made digital media so popular in the music business would apply equally to the publishing world, or does it?
Though economic reasons for this new delivery method can be hard to argue against and the environmental gains tough to brush away, it is not a fair comparison of the music business to the print world, in it, they cater to different senses and sensibilities altogether. In music distribution, the art work and the little liner notes that enveloped the LP/tape/CD might have been a fair trade off, as the primary focus was all on music, and these great add-ons were merely the icing. And so, the transition from a medium based delivery to a formless and stateless method didn't involve a great change of habit and lifestyle (though hardcore music fans would like to say otherwise). But books are an entirely different beast. Whereas music didn't involve the sensory input of touch, a book engages not just the eyes, but sense of feel to satisfactorily accomplish the act of reading. The feel of the book, the rumple of the sheets, the cracking of the paper add up the to much needed aural affirmation, that a click of the mouse, the sleight of the hand against a glossy screen can never hope to achieve. Reading a book is not merely about taking in the contents of the presentation. There is a special challenge and accomplishment that come up with leafing through a book that is outside of grasping the essence of it. Back in the (hey)day of the internet boom, everyone thought of ways of replacing every aspect around living with digital counterparts. Have a grocery list? - worry not, just punch in the list in a website and it would be delivered at the doorstep, looking for furniture? - a click and mortar site is as good as any brick and mortar showroom for a fraction of the cost, need dog food? - check, and in some extreme cases, even assisted suicide - check. Mankind was so hellbent on saving a few extra bucks on storage and delivery that, for a while there, to every problem that plagued mankind, there was a website and delivery was electronic. And luckily for every one idea that clicked (Amazon), there are hundred others that failed miserably (furniture.com, beautyspot.com) and the commonality in the ones the failed involved the much needed look, touch and feel. So with that posing as a major impediment for the electronic consumption of books, would history play a spoil sport again and reassert itself ruling that certain things are off-limits to bits and bytes no matter the savings, or would technology find a way to overcome this issue and design and deliver an experience replete with the crumpling and the soiled effects that comes close to reading a book?
Apart from the touchy aspects of reading a book in its intended form, there are certain tertiary elements that could never be replicated in scrolling through a hand-held device, and that is the sense of anticipation that comes with the cracking open the book for the first time, and the sense of elation upon finishing the last word on the last page and waiting for a few seconds letting the sense of accomplishment sweep over, before shutting it close and marking the territory as conquered. No matter how much the marketing people trumpet the benefits of the E-Reader, unless there is some technology in the works that can recreate the effects of weight, the fad of browsing a hardcover or a paperback would soon die down in the tedium of never-changing, unimaginative and boring interface. Since each book has its own unique design - tall, short, dense, thin - there is a different satisfaction index that is coupled tightly to each రేading experience. Reading a tall, near square paperback TinTin printed on a glossy sheet, wherein sometimes a single frame would take up an entire single-side sheet laid out in exquisite detail, would tower over the equivalent electronic exercise of scrolling up and down, left and right, and the experience, at the least, is incomparable. At the end of the day, one would remember a book, not just by its contents, but also by its cover, howevermuch the proverb tries to impress upon the contrary. And to think all these sizes, shapes, designs, artwork, detailing, and yes even the smell (of a used book, particularly) would lie waste in the digital battlefields losing out to the pricing juggernaut, is a future that is strictly skeletal stripped off the flesh and blood, and in case of picture books, even the soul.
While some publications - newspapers, magazines and other throwaway periodicals - which have very short shelf life would make sense to exist only as their electronic avatars, books, the measure of progress of a culture or a civilization, should never be encouraged to leap frog into an ultimately self-defeating and a self-destructive distributive medium. After all, if one can't distinguish one book from the other and the act of recollection entails a lot of confusion since the brain has only raw text to go with and nothing else to go by, what good is it if one hasn't gone through the scroll-ful books in the first place at all. Because our storage mechanism works entirely different to a machine's, in that, we store memories not as raw data but, in fact, as a composite of data, images, touch, smell, feel, and (unbelievable as it may sound) even exact page contexts (ever had that nagging feeling that you can picture a particular line at the beginning/end of the page, even when you quite can't recollect the contents?). And until we invent something down the line that would trigger the same parts in the brain as reading a physical book does, all that an electronic reader can offer at this point of time is mere bragging rights. And that is just not worth losing/tossing a book over....yet.