21st Century Storytelling

Does anyone in Richmond own a Kindle? Does anyone in Richmond know anyone — anywhere — who has an Amazon Kindle?

Offhand, I can only think of Stephen King, who has written about the new version of Amazon’s e-book reader for Entertainment Weekly, and the author of this article from the Wall Street Journal, who makes some predictions that really don’t sound that far off to me. (On the other hand, writer Stephen Johnson notes “the breakthrough success of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader.” I don’t think the Kindle has had any sort of breakthrough success — yet — and that claim may be a little bit of hyperbole half-remembered from an Amazon press release.)

I ask because I have seen or read absolutely no evidence that the e-book has yet taken off. If successful, the Kindle and other e-readers will eventually offer some true competition to books. And, really, what is a book without paper and binding? What we’ll eventually be downloading will be, more properly termed, novels and nonfiction works. A real book, on the other hand, will still sit alone in your library, having tangible existence, and will not disappear when the batteries run out.

The things Johnson predicts in his WSJ piece may come true, but one way that every e-book cannot help but fail is with that physical presence; for there is nothing that can replace the feel of a good book in your hands while you’re reading it. Yes, it’s a highly romantic concept, to say the least — but I believe the look and feel of a book can also indirectly affect the feelings of a reader. I never would have bought the first Harry Potter book if I hadn’t seen it on the shelf, with adult books, and then picked it up out of curiosity. I instantly felt its weight in my hands — heavier than usual — felt the graininess of the dust jacket underneath my fingertips, and I knew that it was a real book; and when I started reading it that night and could not put it down, I was proved correct. Notice that all the other Harry Potter books used the same grainy stock for their dust jackets, and the interior paper stock was identical to the first book’s. That was a deliberate and genius decision on the part of the publisher: to repeat the same book magic with the sequels.

Issac Asimov, back in 1973, wrote an essay about a four-day series of seminars on communications and society he attended in late 1972. On the first day, he was in the audience when a speaker introduced the concept of video cassettes, the “communications wave of the future” that would “please specialized tastes” and offer stories, instructions, documentaries . . . in short, whatever the viewer wanted.

A few days later, Asimov was approached when another speaker had to cancel, and was asked to speak in his place. Asimov’s essay, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (first published in the January 1973 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and later reprinted in Asimov on Science, Doubleday, 1989), is perhaps his most remembered nonfiction piece. In the essay — and in the hastily-written speech that preceded it — he predicted the ultimate video cassette: small, light, “completely mobile and self-contained . . . seen and heard only by you . . . controls operated, as far as possible, by the will.”

The next question is: How many years will we have to wait for such a deliriously perfect cassette?

I have that answer too, and quite a definite one. We will have it in minus five thousand years — because what I have been describing (as perhaps you have guessed) is the book!

Today, less than two percent of the American public reads more than one book a year. As Asimov explained in his essay (at that time percentage was less than one percent!):

. . . many more people watch television than read books, but that is not new. Books were always a minority activity. Few people read books before television, and before radio, and before anything you care to name. . . .

The book may be ancient but it is also the ultimate, and readers will never be seduced away from it. They will remain a minority, but they will remain.

Books will not be replaced by e-readers; people love them too much. Perhaps “disposable” information, such as magazines and newspapers, which are dependent on publication dates and schedules, will convert more readily to electronic reading. But novels, and long works of nonfiction, will be published in hardcover and paperback, for a long time to come.

That’s the real secret of books.

They’re magic.

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2 thoughts on “21st Century Storytelling

  1. I actually <>do<> own a Kindle. It’s nice in some ways – I have a job where I’m away from home for a day at a time, and I’m a voracious reader. I try to take enough reading material with me, but if I run out I get twitchy.
    It’s nice to flop on the couch with because it’s light, and once I got used to the way the “pages” look and turn, I stopped really thinking about what I was reading them on.
    On the downside, it’s a pain in the butt to flip back a few pages to refer to something (I’m still learning how to use the thing, so there may be an easier way to do it). Also, the e-book prices are creeping up, which is going to be a big problem if it doesn’t stop. I’m not paying ten bucks for something I can get for the same price at Costco.
    Still, I love the fact that I can stick this little thing that’s smaller than a DVD in my purse and have a book to read wherever I go.

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  2. Thanks Jennifer, I appreciate the note. I know that I’d probably fall for the Kindle almost as hard as I’ve fallen for the iPhone. I too am a constant reader, but with the economy the way it is, I’ve had to cut back on my book purchases. Buying an eBook seems just way expensive to me, since you’re buying only information — not anything physical. This is a hurdle that I and a lot of others will have to get over.

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