Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Future of Reading

Ebooks and ebook readers haven't really caught on, although they've been touted for the better part of the decade. I'm not too sure how many of my readers know of the Amazon Kindle, which is a portable reading device, but it's certainly whipped up a media frenzy. It's quite an interesting tool, on which you can not only download books, but also subscribe to various newspapers and magazines, as well as access Wikipedia.

Newsweek has a very good feature story. It doesn't just focus on the foibles of the device but explores the wider implications of new technology on reading.

Like virtually all bibliophiles, I've always been a bit of a traditionalist - how can something mechanical replace the smell, the feel of the book? But over this past year my assumptions have been challenged. I was at a forum discussing ebooks earlier this year and I was quite suprised to learn of the existence of E-Ink, which makes the page on the screen look very much like a printed one and more or less eliminates screen glare (one of the major things that put me off). Amazon czar Jeff Bezos certainly thinks that we can get over the physical nature of books : "I've actually asked myself, 'Why do I love these physical objects? Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?' The answer is that I associate that smell with all those worlds I have been transported to. What we love is the words and ideas." In some ways, I think the transition has happened without me/us(?) noticing it - the simple notion of anyone with an internet connection being able to publish a blog, read other blogs and comment is actually quite revolutionary when we think about it.

I'm also quite intrigued as to the relevance of this to Christians; with regards to Bible reading, mission and so on. During early church times, Christian scribes were among the first to adopt the codex, a manuscript whose sheets of papyrus are fastened together in the form of a book rather than a scroll, which made circulating documents easier. The invention of the printing presses, of course, ushered us from an oral culture to a print culture. What was previously transient now acquired a new air of permanence (speech vs writing). Also, the fixed form of the printed book meant that books seemed more "weighty", it had an authority about it that was not present in the medieval manuscript tradition, which was often more of a colloborative effort. I'm sure the lawyers will tell me that they give more leverage to written material than to oral utterances. The rise of print (and literacy) also led to a rise in the notion of privacy; you can read on your own whereas you have to talk with someone.

And yet with the rise of new technologies, we're swinging back to an oral culture, albeit a very different one. Comments on blogs act like annotations. Blog posts are never finished products, well, unless you cut off comments. I was wondering how the ability to be able to search a book electronically might change our reading habits. (Actually, we already do this when we search for something on Bible Gateway, but if that feature was widely available on an ebook reader...) The invention of the hyperlink means that we no longer have to follow something from beginning to end - you might have clicked on the Newsweek link above before returning (or not!) to this post!

I should say that the Kindle has had an underwhelming response so far. It's far too expensive, and still has too many kinks by the looks of it. But I wonder. Would people be taking ebook readers for granted in 20 years time?

Labels: , , ,

Post a Comment

<< Home

Links to this post:

Create a Link