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Updated: August 7, 2010 16:15 IST

Endpaper: Are ebooks the future?

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
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Now that Kindle and other digital reading devices are hitting the mainstream, how will virtual words impact the reader and the experience of reading?

Waiting for a poetry reading to begin, Critic A can't help eavesdropping on a conversation in progress: someone in the room can't remember a line from a Wallace Stevens poem, and her neighbour ‘Kindles' the quote, and in a few seconds supplies the line. All present are duly impressed except Critic A, who wonders if the Kindle has become to literature what Wikipedia is to information: “a one-stop outlet, a speedy and irresistibly efficient leveler of context”. That is, the poet Wallace Stevens had been taken out of his historical flesh and blood literary context, and his poetry turned into a piece of information.

Critic B, noting A's dismay, observes that Blackberrying or Kindling Stevens instantly doesn't deprive him of his historical and literary context — only forgetting him can do that. And if young people, say his 14-year-old son, can ‘call up' a poem on his Blackberry in a matter of seconds, then a difficult poet like Wallace Stevens, always in danger of not being read enough, will actually find new readers. “Such liberation of access”, notes Critic B, “can only enrich and deepen the historical imagination — extending its nourishment to new audiences”.

It's here now

It was perhaps several months ago that I chanced on this exchange — one resisting the Kindle, the other defending it — and thought to myself: why should we agonise over something that we don't have in India — namely, the Kindle. But now that Amazon's international version of this e-reading device is actually here (some Rs. 17,500 later), does it mean digital reading is finally becoming mainstream? I asked two prominent Indian publishers what they made of the eBook, and found them prepared and geared up for the revolution.

Thomas Abraham, Hachette India's managing director is convinced (partly by how easily and frequently he uses an eReader now) that eBook conversion will happen faster than was supposed in India, but will remain a niche interest with the current device format. “The day real convergence occurs — when your phone, mp3 player and eReader are one device — is when you'll see real mass usage. Hachette is a big believer in the future of the digital medium, both for content as well as distribution platforms. It has therefore set up a central group Digital division which will manage its whole eBook strategy.”

HarperCollins worldwide has for some years now been exploring ways to work closely with digital publishing partners including Amazon. HarperCollins India hopes to learn from their experience to create and partner similar initiatives in India. Its publisher and chief editor, V.K. Karthika is emphatic that “there is no getting away from the fact that digital publishing is the future of the written word. It could mean rethinking processes from scratch, including typesetting and design, not to mention sales and marketing. And of course, as an editor I may have to reinvent my role to adapt to the new technology.”

Neelini Sarkar, editorial assistant at HarperCollins added, “I think being part of traditional book publishing means that we tend to be somewhat skeptical of new-fangled reading formats and insist that e-books just don't ‘feel' the same. But they are certainly a convenience, some years down the line a necessity, and at the end of the day e-reading will probably make book-publishing a simpler process.” Listening to them, I realised what they were getting at would probably be echoed by most other publishers, and that it was time for even the fetishistic bibliophile, namely me, to recognise that the printed book and the digital book must co-exist.

But as a longtime reader of the printed book, I can tell you exactly what I'll miss from an eBook: a particular memory of reading a book, that specificcopy, in a certain way; when you return to re-read a book, the act of reading from the same wel- thumbedcopy. Of lending that edition to a friend. The smell of old ink-and not just a generic book smell but the familiar smell of thatcopy. Writing in the margins, bookmarking and shelving it. As a reader who has cared for books in their physical beauty — fine editions, memorable dust jackets, and lovely typefaces — I cannot help but feel that it will not be easy to replace the sensual ritual of feeling paper as you turn a page.

Inertia

However, the digital book industry is racing to reassure us: CaféScribe, a French on-line publisher, hopes to satisfy the traditional reader by providing customers a sticker that “will give off a fusty, bookish smell when it is attached to their computers”, Amazon Kindle's screen uses e-paper so you won't miss white-cream paper, and the Tablet PC has the dimensions and shape of a book. From a long use of the printed book in our lives we know its aesthetics. In time, I feel that the eBook will acquire its own history, aesthetics and culture.

Robert Darnton, book historian and author of the recently published The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future describes at least one way the e-book enhances reading. “An ‘e-book' unlike a printed codex, can contain many layers arranged in the shape of a pyramid, Readers can download the text and skim through the topmost layer…if they come upon something that especially interests them, they can click down a layer to a supplementary essay or appendix. They can continue deeper through the book, through bodies of documents, bibliography, historiography, iconography, background music…”

But Darnton also points out that there's nothing still wrong with Movable Type — it has just lost a little to Code in speed and practicality. (Amazon's most recent ad for Kindle is ‘In the time it takes to read this article, an entire book would have been downloaded'). Once — and for a very long time — the printed book was the fastest and most practical thing (compact, portable, no batteries required) having edged out manuscripts. Darnton believes that learning will ‘remain within the Gutenberg galaxy — though the galaxy will expand, thanks to a new source of energy, the electronic book, which will act as a supplement to, not a substitute for, Gutenberg's great machine.'

Lingering confusion

I realised my initial skepticism — the skepticism of most traditional bibliophiles — comes from an old but lingering confusion that eBooks equal the decline of reading. We forget that reading itself is in no danger — the freedom experienced in reading is too addictive for that whether on page or screen. Besides, reading makes all forms its own. Consider: the form of the book is always morphing — from vellum manuscripts to wood pulp to pixels, from movable type to the printing press to code, and what remains constant is the experience of reading itself.

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