The future ain't what it used to be.

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by Stella

Having submerged myself a few months ago in real life, I’ve briefly resurfaced to discover (cue the ominous music) the release of the all-powerful iPad. Since this officially heralds the end of printed books (yea, hear the trumpets’ sounding and see the clouds gathering, verily), I thought it would be appropriate to commemorate the beginning of the last act by sharing a few of my book-related habits – some more peculiar than others – and contemplating whether or not they’ll still apply. Before proceeding to (mentally) smack me over the head for overreacting, please note:

a) Yes, I know the iPad isn’t perfect and already there is the usual slew of complaints pertaining to a shiny new gadget that’s supposed to change life as we know it.
b) I’m not against technological advancement.
c) Though I don’t currently own any newfangled electronic reading contraption, I assume I'll own one in the future, not only because I’ll probably want to stay hip and with it, but because it’ll probably be convenient.
d) No, I don’t think this is the end of literature or publishing or humanity.
e) And no, I don’t think that by the end of the year everyone will have e-readers and books will be gone. It’ll take much longer than that and I refuse to make myself look silly by throwing around arbitrary guesses.

Bottom line: books – the literal paper kind – are on their way to becoming material for museum exhibits. And I know I’ve already bewailed this on a previous occasion, but it was an in-denial kind of bewailing. Now I’m ready to face the beast.

Cue wavy dissolve to futuristic scenario #MUSBKZ101: Fragments of crinkly yellow pages behind protective glass flanked by diagrams of how books were used in days of yore. A grainy photo showing a book propping up a wobbly table will get snickers from the bored group of school children who can’t wait to spend their virtual money (the old paper and metal variety are on display in another wing) on pointless souvenirs in the gift shop. Things like plastic books dangling on the end of a keychain or mugs that say I [Heart] e-readers.

Leaping back to the present. I doubt that using an e-reader to prop up a wobbly table would be effective. Interesting maybe, but impractical. When I put a book down on a table, for another thing, I flip it so the back cover is facing up. If not, it’s like the book is staring at you, and that’s distracting. This will no longer plague me with an e-reader, although I may still feel compelled to flip it over when it’s not in use. Some foibles die hard.

I read novels to the end, even if I don’t like them. Rare is the novel that I haven’t finished, even if it’s still boring on page 70. It’s a matter of principle – there could be some good parts hiding amongst the bad – and you want to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Obviously, there’s no reason this won’t work with an e-reader. I just wonder if I’ll be less inclined to persevere given that I’m not nearly as patient when I read from a screen. Then again, who knows? It might make me more patient, although I can’t fathom why except for the sheer stubbornness of not letting a virtual book outwit me.

I may even learn to read more than one book at a time, something which I’ve always detested doing when it couldn’t be avoided. It’s much better to finish one and then start the next. Otherwise it feels like different voices competing to be heard. Speaking of voices, I try to read something light before I go to sleep so that if the text turns up in my dreams, the results won’t be frightening. (Note: postmodernism before bedtime is not a good idea. It’s highly doubtful that e-postmodernism will be any better.)

This is perfectly idiotic, but I always check to see how long a novel is – braving the danger of catching the final lines. Or maybe it’s that I like the danger? I may be curled up on the sofa turning the pages, but don’t say I’m not taking risks. Sadly, this will no longer be possible with an e-reader as I assume the number of pages will appear automatically in a file description. They’re ruining a perfectly thrilling setup, you know.

Call it refusing to conform to logic if you will, but I don’t arrange books on the shelf alphabetically. Rather, I group them by a common subject or time-range. Alas, no more bookshelves with an e-reader. On the plus side – no more dusting. Of course, there is always the possibility of a complete reversal – an age where almost all electrical appliances are banned. Books – the literal paper kind – will be worshipped and libraries will become temples.* Feast your eyes on this if you want to start scouting for a good place to show your devotion. Cue wavy dissolve to futuristic scenario #BKUTPIA451: Zoom in on – forget it. Can’t do it. Will cry irrational sentimental tears. Besides, banning most electrical appliances is not a constructive proposal. We’d only end up burning books in protest – which never leads to anything good. It would also be brutally ironic.

On a final note, I’m not sure how this affects publishing in either the short or long term and I’ll leave it to someone who actually knows something about it to comment, but I suspect that if trees can feel happiness, they might be feeling it now. Cue (the-very-last-I-promise) wavy dissolve to futuristic scenario #C55H70O6N4Mg: Numerous races of sentient trees have taken over the earth. Fragile human bones can still be found occasionally, but you’d have to look hard and the trees have long since forgotten the stupid little people with their saws and bulldozers. The giant Redwoods run most of North America and are looking to expand southward, but they’re getting fierce opposition from the Amazonians. On the one side, buffaloes and bison; on the other, anacondas and llamas. Who can say how it will end? Tune in next time for another thrilling installment of War of the Trees.

* Thanks, Kathleen!


Keenan Family said...

Thought I was the only one who HAD to finish a book on principle, see how long they were and read only one at a time. Glad I wasn't alone. I say wasn't because now that I have my e-reader I've abandoned them all.

Unknown said...

Love this, Stella. I heard the music loud and clear.
And I hadn't thought about how to level my desk and dinner-table in the future.
Match books, which were likewise helpful here, have already become rare--museum curators, take note.

Stella said...

Dear Keenan Family - no! We must not be vanquished by virtual books! We must defy expectations that our attention-spans will shorten!

Oh Sweet Kathleen - I'd forgotten all about matchbooks. I hang my head in shame. I certainly don't advocate smoking, but all the related gadgets - holder, cigarette case, etc. - are elegant. Damn irony...