Crossing The Rubicon

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte (he of the 'One Laptop Per Child' program) wrote a book of prophecy called 'Being Digital' in which he basically predicted a Kindle or iPad-like device which would be used, Mr. Negroponte claimed, to aggregate and consume news media, magazines and novels.

Last weekend I bought an iPad. Actually, let me back up. A few months ago I pre-ordered, from Amazon, a fantasy anthology. The title was a hardback edition and I think was priced at around $45. Last weekend I bought an iPad and immediately downloaded the iBooks application and the Kindle app. I searched iBooks for 'Steven Erikson' and, returning no results, I opened the Kindle app. I was surprised and delighted to be told, upon logging in, that I would have 620,000 titles to choose from. I downloaded the first two books in the 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' series ($8 or $9 each), grinned and resumed my time travel.

Cut to this morning when Amazon sent me an email informing me that they were having trouble locating copies of my pre-ordered anthology and would I like to cancel the order?  I hesitated, my fingering hovering over the link. Then I grabbed my iPad and dialed up iBooks. They had the title. And it was $11.99. Click.

And there it was. No fuss. No waiting for delivery.  A digital download, easy as Pi. And as I opened the book and read the introduction, a thought came to me, "I guess that's it for me and hardcopies of books."

I don't yet know if it is over between us.  I can't quite see myself never again going into a bookstore and picking up something that catches my eye.  But when it is made this easy to get a new title that I've been excited about... Well, the purveyors of downloadable books make a compelling argument.

I once thought that I could never surrender compact discs; I liked very much the physical media, the album art, the actual discs themselves, and I worried, if I began buying digital music, about somehow losing my collection, either via HDD failure or corporate malfeasance.  What if they were taken back, somehow?  

Well, now I never buy actual CDs, unless it's an item that I just cannot find in a download.  The two boxes of discs I packed for our last move (two years ago) sit still packed in a closet, waiting for me to get up the energy to sell them, or give them away.  Digital downloads are just too convenient.  Sula and I recently watched the movie The Book of Eli which has a soundtrack I really liked, and after the film was over I went upstairs to my computer and search, $14.99, click.  Lovely.

I love books. I love fondling them. I love taking them off the shelf and randomly dipping into them. I love seeing a series all lined up sequentially on the shelf. I love the smell of the pages. But I won't be sad if I never again have to lug around a fat new fantasy book of 1000 pages or more (and lets face it, most of the books I really love weigh in at hernia, and I often have a tough time standing on the Subway and holding the latest doorstop with one hand). No more scuffed and creased covers.  No more loose bindings or pages falling out.  And in a home like ours, with two voracious, insatiable readers, no more having to move to a new house just to make room for additional bookshelves.

I guess there's the issue of having the battery run out on my electronic machine, or having it die.  And for someone like me, a person who is so terrified of having nothing with him to read that for 25 years, has carried a book just in case he had to go to casualty.  Well, that feels like a very real concern.  But weighed against all the advantages of a digital copy, it doesn't make sense for me to resist making the switch.  With a digital book I can make the font larger or smaller (or even change it), I can adjust the brightness of the screen in less than optimal lighting conditions; I can make notes and highlight sections, and I can preserve the book's condition.  The only question left for me, I think, is how I will handle reading a book whose story is so derisible it makes me want to throw it across the room.  That could get expensive.