The Future of Reading

Our daughter came home from college this Thanksgiving weekend, and gave us the heads-up that she would like an e-reader for Christmas. She did not want an iPad (too big, and a lot of money considering she only wants it to e-read), and was leaning toward the Kindle, but wanted to look at B&N’s Nook as well. We went to one of our local malls, where both were available to play with, and we went to the Apple store as well, because…well, why not. As a result of her research, she is now leaning toward the Nook.

The entire subject of e-readers fueled a discussion. We hear that e-readers are a big gift item this Christmas. I heard a discussion on NPR Friday about how reading a Kindle is more like reading a book, brainwave-wise, while reading an LED screen (PCs, iPads, Nooks) cause entirely different parts of the brain to light up and tire us out more. Will this change the very functioning of our brains? Who knows! This morning’s L.A. Times carried a column (a paper blog!) in which the columnist raved about his and his wife’s respective Kindles. He was concerned, however, that e-readers were ringing the death knell for the local bookstore.

This bothers me as well. Wandering through a bookstore counts as a favorite activity, although the opportunities for such wandering are rare these days, and stores disappear and the big chains cut back their selections. Many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers are missing from my local B & N or Borders, and I end up buying many of my books from a mail order and online bookseller, Mark Ziesing. Mark and Cindy have been in the mail order order business for decades. They easily made the transition to online (www.Ziesings.com), but I fear e-books will do folks like them in.

Hey, what about book signings? What happens to them?

My daughter points out that e-books save trees. This is a good thing, I agree, especially if said book is some kind of trashy celeb bio I feel I must read. Celeb bios are almost never literature, except for Julia Child’s My Life in France, and Bob Dylan’s ChroniclesVolume One. (Still waiting for volume two, Bob!) She also notes that e-books are nice for plane travel; you can put a whole bunch of them on a single device, which is good for weather delays and the like. I counter that, unlike a conventional book, e-books will have to be turned off during takeoff and landing. One other negative about e-books is that you can’t pass them around. My husband is currently enjoying the Keith Richards autobiography on his iPad. I can’t sneak a look at it when he puts it down, because he takes it with him when he leaves the house, nor can I just read it when he’s done.

Ambience is lost when we lose the physical book. One of my favorite dreamscape scenarios is finding myself in a giant phenomenal library, with room after room of floor-to-ceiling books, and ladders that go up into the vanishing heights. There is no one at the front desk, no one to tell me I can’t climb the ladders, can’t get the books for myself. There are big long tables of dark, glossy wood, and massive crystal chandeliers for me to read by. There is that smell, that lovely, musty smell that books have, and probably enough dust to make me cough a little.

Looks like I need to replace that with a different scenario, perhaps with a room all in white and stainless steel. A picture window looking out over the lights of the city. A glass of white wine, or maybe a cup of coffee. Next to it, a black, shiny tablet, containing everything that’s ever been published in the history of the world.

All right. I guess that sounds nice. I know the dust wasn’t good for me anyway.

I don’t know what the future of reading is, but here is my best guess: Mass-market paperbacks will begin to go away as electronic readers become as cheap as digital calculators. These are the books the pages of which turn brown after only a few years. They can indeed be done away with. Specialty publication, in the form of quality paperback and hardcover, will continue. Physical books will become more expensive, eventually to be considered a luxury item. There will be book signings for these items, and booksellers–a few, anyway–will make a living off of selling them. People–some of us, anyway–will continue to read for entertainment and information, in spite of all the other distractions, troubles, and drudgery of staying alive.

Check that: We will continue to read because of the distractions, troubles, and drudgery of life.

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