For at least the last 10 years, a general mindset has developed about books. This mindset thinks the rise of electronic media will inevitably kill the book; after all, books are now printed on dead trees. Since we now have computer screens, we don’t need dead trees, so we won’t need books in the future.
When faced with this pessimistic assessment, book-lovers defend the book, saying you can’t cuddle up to a computer screen in bed or on the beach. But I don’t really think this knee-jerk reaction is necessary – books are important in our culture and will remain so.
One of my old-school professors last year told us nobody knows exactly how many books have been published, but the general belief is that one billion titles have been published since the Gutenberg press started in 1450. By contrast, this week a new school professor told the class there are about 120 million web pages out there. Now, this is an exponential increase from the early-1990s, when Web pages numbered in the thousands, but it’s still only 10 per cent of the number of books out there.
Efforts are underway right now to digitize every book in existence – this is at least Google’s dream, who, according to a New Yorker article earlier this year, are taking books out of American libraries, literally by the truckload, and bringing them to an undisclosed location to scan the pages. As of that writing, Google hoped to have scanned seven million books within the next six years. While there are other projects like this out there, such as Project Gutenberg and Internet Archives, they will give you the popular titles, but, again, they don’t yet have every book digitized.
Even so, I’d put a confident bet down that people who download these books will print them off anyway. Really, how many people like reading from an illuminated computer screen? However, a recent column in the Wall Street Journal has described the rise of E Ink, an American company that has made a computer screen without a back- lit display. Journal columnist Lee Gomes reports that you can’t read it in the dark, but you can bring this small portable device to the beach and read digital books under the sun. And, unlike a computer screen, your eyes don’t get tired reading from it. Instead of physically turning pages, you press an arrow button and the screen displays the next page.
Gomes writes with enthusiasm about the new device, which is understandable because it sounds pretty cool. He had me convinced until he started talking about the inconvenience of reading an actual book: “fighting” to keep the book open and actually “turning pages.” Hard work indeed. Perhaps book-reading, then, could be an event in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics.