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Far From Flatbush

The Future of Reading

Jason Merkoski, a former employee of Amazon, was the leader of the team that built the first Kindle. Today he released an e-book, Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading.

Though I've not yet read the book, my sense of it, based on an interview with Merkoski in The New York Times, is that Amazon doesn't come off especially well. In response to a question about how people might react if they knew what was going on inside companies like Amazon, he said that Amazon, as well as Google and Apple, "have entire buildings filled with lawyers" whose job is "to keep people like me from even answering this question." He suggested, as well, that if the "veil of secrecy" that surrounds these corporations were lifted, people might boycott them.

Merkoski also mentioned that when it comes to censorship, a problem that I was dealing with last year, he does not trust the executives at any e-book retailer. Most of them, he said, “would rather pull e-books from the store, effectively censoring them, if that would avoid bad press.”

I’ve no doubt that this is all true. But I do question one point that Merkoski makes. “In 20 years,” he said, “the space of one generation, print books will be as rare as vinyl LPs.”

I’m not saying this won’t happen. I am saying that if it doesn’t happen, it’s because there are too many people, like me, who think reading on a screen is far less pleasurable than reading a printed book. Reading on a screen eliminates the sensuality and the connection you feel with a printed book. It’s more difficult to get lost in an e-book than it is in a printed book. Based on what I’ve heard and seen, I think there’s already an intense resistance to e-books among certain readers of all ages.

This was not the case when CDs began replacing vinyl LPs in the mid-1980s. Yes, there was some resistance to them among aficionados, but most people, myself included, couldn’t wait to get their hands on CDs, even if they already had the record in vinyl. That’s because people believed that CDs provided a better listening experience (and they took up less room).

Nobody, I’d argue, would suggest that e-books provide a better reading experience than printed books. Their advantages, as far as I can see, are that they take up less space, they’re cheaper, and they’re searchable. And that’s not enough to drive printed books into near extinction. Unless, of course, it is. Because when it comes to the book business, nobody knows what’s going to happen 20 minutes from now, much less 20 years.
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