The Case for the E-Book in the (Gasp!) New York Review of Books

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E-books are beginning to get their due, even from the guardians of intellectual life.

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If I were someone who believed that culture was solely something that rode atop the more important economic and social structures of the world, I might believe that as soon as book sales began to tilt towards the electronic variety, the world's cultural critics would begin to pay homage to the new king. I'd expect to find essays in the great literary magazines about how reading e-books was commendable, salutary, even salubrious! These arguments, of course, would be made on the merits of the reading experience and not on the economic necessity of supporting the new form or the technological appeal of the gadgets in which the books are found. No, these arguments would be made solely within the bounds of the bookish and according to the rules of engagement long-ago established.

Completely unrelatedly, here is a quite wonderful essay in the New York Review of Books about the value of e-books:

The e-book, by eliminating all variations in the appearance and weight of the material object we hold in our hand and by discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words (the page once read disappears, the page to come has yet to appear) would seem to bring us closer than the paper book to the essence of the literary experience. Certainly it offers a more austere, direct engagement with the words appearing before us and disappearing behind us than the traditional paper book offers, giving no fetishistic gratification as we cover our walls with famous names. It is as if one had been freed from everything extraneous and distracting surrounding the text to focus on the pleasure of the words themselves. In this sense the passage from paper to e-book is not unlike the moment when we passed from illustrated children's books to the adult version of the page that is only text. This is a medium for grown-ups.

E-books, then, are the soul of the book freed from the wood flesh! They are one step closer to the telepathic ideal of idea transmission.

I agree with most of this, of course, but, my, what a difference a year makes. Here's the NYRB in February of 2011, in which e-books were going to be for all the crap while "content worth keeping" would continue on in paper form:

The two-thousand-year-old codex--printed pages, bound between covers--therefore will not go the way of vinyl and the compact disc but will survive for content worth keeping while the e-book/ e-pad formats and their future iterations will be more and more widely used, particularly for ephemera including soft-core pornography by women,the fastest-growing e-book category, and most reference works, such as encyclopedias, atlases, manuals, and so on that are constantly revised and may now be downloaded item by item.

I say all this not as a digital triumphalist. I like a good paper reading experience, too. But more to note that as the prices of e-book readers drop and the experience improves and the publishing business shifts to the electronic side of the house and brick-and-mortar retailers continue to go bankrupt, the guardians of culture will have less and less reasons to defend the establishment just to defend their livelihoods. Paper will keep its partisans, but I don't see the bulk of the cultural class sticking with them. Things that belong in paper -- beautiful things, things better read with heaps of context, things designed to take advantage of what print can do -- will remain in paper, but the workaday reading experience (i.e. the bulk of the business) will move to a screen. We won't go paperless, but, to steal Tim Maly's wonderful line, we'll have a new relationship with paper.

Image: Alexis Madrigal.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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