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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Chapter Eighty-One, in which your Bibliothecary contemplates a new reading Experience

Sarah's choice between two new offerings to readers returned the thoughts of your Bibliothecary to the impending extinction of the book. We’ve heard these proclamations of doom for a while now, and it appears, after better than 500 years of existence, the form of the book Gutenberg produced is hardly an endangered species.

There does exist a market for a sixty-volume print set of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. There also exists a market for the Sony® Reader. Each has its niche, as well as strengths and weaknesses, and neither will likely doom the existence of the other. For instance, electronic texts are easily searched; however, they are not conducive to browsing. In the near term, it is likely these two formats will complement one another.

As advertised, the Sony® Reader “offers a new and convenient digital reading experience.” It is not, then, a book in advanced form, but a gadget. Gadgets often have short life cycles: novelty fades quickly, and convenience is improved with a newer gadget. The Sony® Reader is nothing of itself—it requires a book, after all, albeit in electronic format, to be of any use whatsoever. It does nothing but translate binary code into words that the eye can see no differently than if they were printed on paper.

The basic function of the Sony® Reader and a book in print is the same: each is a container of information. By each we can store, transport, and disseminate a wealth of information far beyond the boundaries of memory or locality. But one of the biggest drawbacks to high-tech devices is that they always need repairs, or upgrades, or peripherals. If, for example, one’s power source is exhausted, how does one retrieve the information from its container? Will it still work if we drop bits of muffin in the cracks? Can it also serve as a coaster? Will an electronic text on a Sony® Reader be of any use two hundred years from now, or will they have found a home at the dead end of obsolescence with the eight-track tape?

We bookstore owners may be biased, but I wonder who can show us an e-book store? If nothing else, there is an aesthetic pleasure to browsing shelves of books, flipping the pages, feeling the weight of the subject, a pleasure that simply does not exist with a stack of computer disks, or a column of hyperlinks. Even audio books lack this tactile appeal. So, Dear Reader, what would your choice be?

Would we enjoy having all the information contained in sixty volumes of print ready to search and copy in digital form? Certainly. Would we take pride and pleasure in amassing and displaying in our home a collection of 5,000 e-texts? Hardly. Sony® may have produced a handy gadget, but the company needs better marketing. Do readers really want a new, convenient digital experience? One can put The Bridges of Madison County into the Sony® Reader, and we guarantee it will still be the worst book one has ever read.


  1. i hesitate to say that all who post here are likely lovers of books and so we will all, undoubtedly, cry out in unison: its the BOOK i want to touch and feel and smell and read -- not the Sony Readerthingamajiggy. i don't know that you will receive unbaised posting here. although i'll watch closely.

    i'm a bit of a gadget girl and have lots of ethingys and i just can't see it. why not just read it on a laptop then, when all is said and done? hmmmmm. as you eloquently describe in your post, i can't even manage to get through audio books because they lack that same quality. the heft, the wear, the tactile thing we booklovers need. yes, it is about the words contained in the "container", but it is so much more.

    should a day in the future come to pass in which bookstores (of your kind and so many others) are no longer "bookstores" with lovely creaky floors and books bought and sold by who knows who with marginalia and odd receipts thrown into the pages...i will be sad. permanently, irretrieveably sad.

    i believe that booklovers everywhere will rise up to ensure such a fate does not befall all the books that have been written and those yet to be written.

  2. Sorry I just can't go for the idea of a Sony reader. It just wouldn't be the same snuggling up in bed with it or laying it on my table at lunch time and reading it. That said--I work in an academic library and more and more we are buying digital content--particularly journals. Students groan at having to use fiche readers. They expect and seem to want it all full text online. And there are many instances when scholarly work is only available in a digital format. I guess it will be interesting to see where it all goes. I only hope the books remain as they are.

  3. Yeah, and could a small child sit on a stack of them in order to reach the dinner table????

    And does the Sony Reader SMELL good?

    Give me a book any day.