preservation and persistence of the changing book

e-Book Obsolescence

“Some people think e-book readers are nothing more than a passing fad. Don’t be so sure of that, however. Odds are that portable e-book devices are here to stay, and that the market for e-books will take off in the not-too-distant future. Surveys have found that even though most people do not like to read books on a PC screen, they are attracted to the idea of portable reading devices.”

always ready to take-off

Contrary to the hyperbole of their ascendance over the paper book, e-books are obsolete. Unless they shift from simulation of the print reading mode they will have a shrinking role among hand held reading devises.

The topic here is consideration of hand held display devices for presentation of book works, both fiction and non-fiction, that have traditionally been published in paper format using conventions of organization and presentation well established and long refined. In this category the e-book device is obsolescent because it (1) it reverts to linear exposition presented in print reading mode, (2) it disguises machine reading accessibility as eye reading accessibility and (3) it is projected to a shrinking sector of the on-line reading mode. Let’s consider these factors.

Going Backwards

E-books are chronically poised to “take off”. The obstacles that are cited to account for the long delay include pricing, content rights negotiation and control, proprietary control of hardware and software formats and the range of title availabilities. These same factors have long, long existed in print media, but now they are considered of a different magnitude. Are these obstacles emphasized, in part, to deny an inherent obsolescence of e-books?

E-books are obsolete because they regress to a print reading mode. Sure they have navigational and search features added, but the priority is the simulation of conventions and presentation of print. The problem with this approach is a crippling of both electronic and print reading modes as presented in e-books. Any further e-book development will probably lead to enhanced interactivity with the print image and that would only conflict more with the image passivity of print.

The incentive to further interactivity may also occur in response to the impoverished dexterity interface of e-appliances in general. A bit more on this factor as it relates to the physical act of reading from hand held devises is addressed elsewhere in this web site.(see Reading by Hand) Just an example to indicate the issue here is the difference between pointing to a page turning or manually turning a page.

E-book copy must be read to the last word before the page is turned. In a paper book you will notice that the fingers begin separating leaves and lifting up the page to be turned well before the last word. Frequently the manual page turning begins at the start of page reading and gradually proceeds in sync with the whole page reading. If this is important or unimportant is not important, but such easily overlooked differences of electronic and print paradigms are brought into focus with the e-book.

Perhaps the larger point is that e-books are particularly ill adapted to the specific genre and reading sector that they target. The genre is traditional, frequently out of copyright, literary works in book format. It is a double regression to present this genre in the wrong reading mode to preferencially on-line readers. Such misalignment is made worse if the focus is on discretionary reading. Compared with the paper book, the e-book and its target creates two obstacles in the place of none.

The Mark of Zorro

Another factor in e-book obsolescence is so obvious that it is invisible. E-books disguise machine reading accessibility as eye reading accessibility. With paper books the access devise IS the reader. With e-books the access devise is actually machine conversion of code to image. This is not to say that reading the letter Z is a different act on a screen or on a paper page or on the sword slashes in your pants. The point here is that e-book access is complicated by an added layer of decipherment.

Paper books are eye and machine readable as independent access modes. E-books are eye and machine readable as interdependent access modes. This is a bigger factor than it first appears. For example not much eye legibility is provided if the e-book battery is not charged. The less obvious implication is that eye readability in e-books is a by-product of machine readability and the assurance of eye readable stored narrative or knowledge vanishes. This is a very unbooklike side effect. Nothing is blanker than a blank screen.

The passivity of the paper book image of print, or the much admired invisibility of good typographic and book design may be symptomatic of simple and direct eye access. Direct access – direct design. Likewise paper books in both their composition and in their collection and use are aimed at direct transmission of conceptual works of their contents. Their meaning is not hostage to machine conversion, the first interpretation is in the mind of the reader.

E-books, instead, urge us to use another infrastructure for stored narration and knowledge. Though disguised as eye readable print, e-books reverse the Z and exemplify the mark of another neural network.

Growth of a Smaller Portion

I was once in a meeting of publishers and librarians. The presenting publisher remarked that by 2030 90% of all publication will be online. Ross Atkinson from the Cornell University Libraries immediately jumped up to remark that given the rate of increase in publications, growth in the remaining 10% of paper publication would enable traditional, paper based research libraries to double in size. And what Ross left unsaid is that the remaining 10% might be the portion of a different quality.

Fine book production has always been a small portion of the publication universe. In the future it could diminish further as a portion while it actually grows in size. Likewise, readerships are distributed into innumerable communities which could grow as they sub-divide. With such factors of market choice in play, are e-books jumping onto the right, narrow band wagon? It is possible that e-books are projected to the wrong print reading mode when they should be projecting to an electronic reading mode for print readers? Is it possible that the e-book is confining itself to a limited technological path?

Instead of depicting keyed text, e-books might be better positioned as full color devises for presentation of high resolution facsimiles of printed books. These facsimile images would have underlying character recognized text to enable the current e-book navigation and search.

The Octavo editions present the best example of what the facsimile reading devise could aspire to do. Library based digital facsimile publications would also be relevant. In this direction the remote access to unique source originals attracts print readership to the electronic mode. The e-book is then simulating a real book for the express purpose of its study in a digital environment and electronic reading mode.

Another print reader market would open for e-books with on-the-fly translation. That integration of character recognition and translation software would quickly escape the book domain but could readily utilize the hand held format and LCD display.

The horizon of e-books, as hand held devices designed for page format display, certainly converges with reference publication, from dictionaries to Bible concordances. All kinds of reference handbooks are now appropriately converted to an electronic reading mode and to handheld display devices. But this domain has always been in a state of dynamic access even when airline schedules were printed on paper.
Here the e-book is just another appliance of the internet.

I have no idea how impossible the technical future of the e-book will become. Perhaps features of full color, print facsimile or on the fly translation which may require wireless internet connection can be provided via e-books. These scenarios move toward the interactivity of the on-line reading mode and away from the paper book reading mode on which e-books are presently focused. Such a shift, I think, would also be a shift from obsolescence to relevance for print readership.


Walt Crawford, author of “Being Analog”, A.L.A., 1999, tends in the same direction as the perspective above. In his Technology column in American Libraries he provides an evaluation of e-books in the September, 2000 issue.

He too is looking for an e-book with features “to make the electronic form more than a transcription.” He refers to such appliances in the electronic reading mode as “extended books” and cites the early Voyager Company productions.

“Extended e-books, either on CD-ROM or the Web, go beyond printed books in a number of ways besides offering searchable text. Good CD-ROMs can help users explore some topics in ways not supported by ordinary books, and the same is true for innovative Web-based resources.” But, “Are these e-books, or are they something else? I would call them new electronic media, able to complement and extend print publishing.”

Robert Darton comes close to the same thing in his description of the “electronic monograph”, an electronic reading and publishing mode for print scholars, especially his closing on pp. 9-10; http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWfeatdisplay.cgi?19990318005F
This is certainly future of the book territory; the hybrid consequences of the interaction of different reading modes.

(the opening quote in this commentary is from http://www.stockhouse.com/shfn/oct00/100500com_ebook.asp)

on the e-book reading mode note http://www.cuoctopus.com/2000/dec15/reading.html

the last book & the end of time whatever

The March/April 2001, Utne Reader has an enclave of items on “The Last Book”, “Cyber-gizmo gurus say that in the next 20 years, they’ll put the world’s libraries in your pocket, but what will happen to culture when they do?” (get the paper copy). I am just losing my patience with the forever soon to be take-off of the e-Book. The reality is that the hands prompt the mind when it comes to reading and there is a million years of the evolution of conciousness to prove it.

Check out this perplexed quote: “Using the page-turning button, I clicked nicely through the story. But it wasn’t capturing my attention. It may have been the writing, but maybe my brain’s receptors were failing to find whatever part of the book makes them books. I think it was all that glass. Reading the story was like watching a fish in an aquarium tank. I wanted to swim with it.”
postscript to endnote

This FotB discussion began over a year ago (9.30.00) during a period of enthusiasm and expectation for the eBook. Now (12.01) the flush is over and the obsolescence and lack of acceptance of a hand held reading device for presentation of books is apparent. But there was a way that would have worked; all that would have been needed is thresholding across to another reading mode.

Audio books on tape now have some 5% penetration of the publishing market. If the eBook had crossed this threshold to the oral/verbal/aural reading mode there could have been another story to the story. Needed would have been the wireless headset and web based distribution and the on-demand data base of texts synthesized for audio. The conversion would be on the fly and offer itself a menu of options for choice of language and accent.

This way would have worked especially in multi task settings such as commuting. The way not to simulate turning the page is not to turn the page. Even web based access to tape libraries would have worked. (search audio ebooks)


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