The first book I ever read cover to cover was a sci-fi potboiler, Robert Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, which I plucked off the rotating metal paperback display in the drugstore where my Mom worked in the early ‘60s. 25 cents. I still have it. I can still read it (if I wanted to). For lots of reasons, it’s hard to imagine that some kid will be able to read the copy of Paolo Bacigalupa’s The Windup Girl fifty years from now that she just bought on an ereader. $8 (the paperback costs $15 in a physical bookstore, $8 online at Amazon or B&N). Of course if she’s twelve years old, like I was, the big obstacle is that she won’t have an ereader. Nooks and Kindles and iPads are still adult devices at this point because they’re too expensive and require credit cards. Facile anecdotes about preschoolers wondering why paper books don’t pinch and squeeze like the iPad, or gushing headlines about ereader adoption by younger audiences (which appears not to be the case), or even hip parents saying “look at this,” don’t add up to ebooks in the hands of many 12-year-olds.
So she may not buy The Windup Girl or even be able to buy it in the first place, unless she’s the daughter of a prosperous American. Beyond that there’s the fact that whatever electronic reading devices are available 50 years from now, if there are any, won’t be able to display that Kindle file or epub “file” she downloaded, if she did, anyway—notice, it’s not a book now. It’s a “file,” a curiously deceptive evolution of how you describe a book. The book may survive but be disembodied and as such might be LESS readily available than the current Google wisdom implies. If that last statement makes no sense to you, I suggest you take a long weekend without an Internet or cellular connection and think about it.
Moving right along, it’s interesting when you go to “ebook stores” that the genres survive, like science fiction, where you’d find Heinlein or The Windup Girl. But here’s a modest proposal: why?
I just read Jack McDevitt’s 2005 novel Seeker, which is just an amazing detective, uh… sci-fi novel with a liberal dose of ethical intrigue that makes me wonder why a lot of people who’ve never in their lives read a science fiction novel (and to whom Harlan Ellison is an undiscovered country) wouldn’t enjoy reading this book. I bought the paperback ($7.99). How can you not like sci-fi covers? That got my attention way back when (and it’s far less a gender issue now—no more babes gripped by giant crabs). Still, hard to appreciate art in an ebook cover, though with a color Nook, why not? It could even be a thirty second video, like a movie trailer. This could be one advantage of ebooks—genre busting, attention grabbing, content marketing. To me the experience of reading Nevada Barr’s Winter Study and McDevitt’s Seeker were such similar reading experiences–strong characters, evil doers, suspense—that I just can’t help but think of them in the same cold breath. Maybe as novels get stirred in the big digital pot some of the genre lines might blur, not necessarily, but potentially if the booksellers adjusted their suggestions–if you like this, you’ll like that, instead of clinging to the niches. Just a suggestion, could be fun, although my wife would say I’m barking up the wrong bits on this one. She wouldn’t watch Inception with me last night. Good choice, actually.
It may be that instead of thinking about the technology what we should really be thinking about is what books are, the words themselves and the reading experience? I’m skeptical about the ereader experience, for some of the reasons amorphously implied above, but print faced similar challenges early on. The “Gutenberg revolution” in fact took a 150 years to bear fruit for anyone but an elite few. The magic trick, if it’s to be believed at all, will be to produce ebooks that can be preserved (independent of the gadgets du jour) that also engage readers as much as print books do. Ebooks have a LONG way to go. Maybe fifty years from now we’ll be able to hold them somehow. Turn their pages, which slowly age, like everything else in existence. Instead of expiring like ebooks checked out of libraries do now, maybe ebooks will just turn gray, or lose their page numbers. Who knows?