Don’t it always seem to goThat you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.—Joni Mitchell
In most journalistic accounts of e-books it is hard to distinguish the reality from the hype and boosterism that lend a heady air of eventfulness to the subject. People who are attached to physical books don’t make much news, whereas each uptick in sales of e-books has been reported as another step along the way of an e-book “revolution,” a dissymmetry that can make even committed book lovers worry that the days of books might indeed be numbered. One detects this unease in the way they routinely tend to couch their preference for physical books apologetically, defensively, beginning with disclaimers of Luddism that reassure their interlocutors that they aren’t averse to technology per se, but that they just like the “feel” of the book, as if something as frail as a mere feeling couldn’t really be expected to stand up against the mighty tide of history, with its presumed metaphysical right-of-way. But by thus acquiescing in the aura of inevitability that has from the first attended the prospect of an e-book “revolution,” these timid partisans of the book do their own small part to help bring about the outcome they may well secretly dread.
Certainly, it is in the interests of our corporate chiefs to promote a general belief in the inevitability of e-books coming to dominate the market if not replacing physical books entirely. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos would very much like us to believe that such a future is inevitable. In a breathless advertisement-cum-article in Newsweek trumpeting the arrival of the Kindle in 2007 he declares, “it’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it . . .”1 The rhetorical slippage here, from a sentence structure that introduces an intention (“it’s so ambitious to”) to the complement that casts that intention as a fait accompli (“and improve on it”) is telling: in the space of a single sentence the future is collapsed into the present, as the highly evolved book is said to have [End Page 340] evolved yet further. Bezos himself may believe this—it would be hard ever to know since he is required by his role to project such confidence—but for those of us not invested in the success of e-books this assertion not only baldly begs the question of whether the book has been improved, it also masks the deeper issue, which is not whether the book wired as a gizmo does the same things as a book and then some, but rather whether we want the book to be turned into a gizmo at all.
While people who are fond of books are apt to think that an e-book is as much an improvement on a physical book as an electronic keyboard is on a piano, it is understandable that after the recent and long-promised surge of e-book sales they may have believed that the end was indeed near. Yet already an e-book revolution is beginning to seem not so inevitable after all. As books continue to weather the storm, the heretical thought now suggests itself more and more pointedly that the book, essentially unchanged for more than five hundred years, is already an optimum instrument for reading, one that therefore—pace Jeff Bezos—can’t be improved upon. The competition between the two forms seems to have reached a kind of checkered coexistence with different constituencies preferring one or the other form for this or that purpose. The growth rate of dedicated readers has abated considerably, although a good deal of that drop-off may be owing to the arrival of “tablets” on the market. More to the point, despite the momentum of the e-book phenomenon, according to a recent PEW survey fully 59 percent of the population still has no interest in buying an e-book.2 That figure is down from the 80 percent reported five years ago...