Books in the digital age

There are many e-readers in the market now, and the prices are coming down and they are tempting me more and more. However, I’m still hesitant about making a switch to reading electronic books, instead of printed books, ink on paper. Part of it is an instinctive rejection of things new and novel on my part, though I usually regret not adopting the innovation earlier once I take the plunge, but there is something precarious about electronic books that arouses a sense of unease in me.

The great thing about print is that it creates multiple physical copies of the same text. While it’s possible that all copies are lost, due to fire, rats or inattentive owners, books printed on paper have been extremely durable, and they have lasted for centuries. Also, and crucially, the text is fixed and cannot be altered.

Can digital books offer the same chances of survival and the same degree of stability as print? I am not certain, and yet to be convinced. Digital books can be stored in multiple locations, however what happens if the whole system that the digital books depend on were to crash, or the format in which books are stored were to become obsolete? Digital content can be altered quite easily, and it’s possible that fixing the master copy will be reflected in all depending on how distribution of the books are managed, unlike in print publications where an author would be hard pressed to track down every single purchaser of the book and manually change each copy.

If anything, it is the ability to manipulate the text constantly and with ease that bothers me slightly. Of course I understand that thoughts always evolve and fixing something at an arbitrary point may be doing more harm than good. However, I feel that it is helpful to be able to track the evolution of an idea by following the different editions and publications. In this respect print publications are signposts on a long road. It is conceivable that there may be multiple digital copies of multiple editions stored in different formats and at different locations, but it raises the question of authenticity: if the author’s URI has been updated with a newer edition without noting the changes, then it can confuse and possibly distort the evolutionary process.

I treat publications on the internet as ephemeralia, something fleeting, and for that reason, I have no compunction in constantly editing the content on this site. For books, however, and especially academic publications, I’d like to see print to remain in existence for a long time to come.

Despite all that I have written above, I have a funny feeling I’ll end up owning a reader and quite liking it.