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.


  1. The paragraph where you describe your love for books captures my feeling as well. I love when a friend wanders over to one of my bookshelves and browses the spines, asking questions, initiating conversation that could go somewhere. On the shelves they're out in the open, unhidden, waiting for someone to discover.

    I love being able to flip instantly to a favorite passage, to create a hierarchy on my bookshelves....first editions, autographed, hardcovers, paperbacks, favorites, i think i've rearanged them over a dozen times, to what mood strikes me.

    I love the cover art, the blurb, the author bio/pic. I like that they age, that the edges of the pages turn brown and say "I have long as you? Longer?"

    And most of all i love, and hate at the same time, when someones eye fixates on a particular tome on the shelf and asks the dreaded yet delightful words, "May i borrow this?" Why the duality? The delight is in sharing, knowing someone else will experience the same that i have, a common bond worth conversation. The dread is that my precious volume will return to me tumbledown, that it will suffer misuse in someone elses hand.

    I just don't see much of that happening as easily by saying "Hey want to browse the titles on my Kindle?", let alone their experiencing the intangible passion by holding one or looking at and through it.

    To put it simply, i can't see the soul inside a Kindle, et al. But a book....ah, a book....

    I suppose there will be a day when there are no more printed books. But i hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime. I'm usually not a Luddite (though i think i could live in firelight for all my remaining days), but in this case they'll have to drag me kicking and crying into that era.

    Thus ends my diatribe, but you probably already know since i mailed it you yesterday. What's mail? Well, once upon a time....

  2. Yeah, Pops, I agree with your eloquent comments, which is why I've resisted buying a Kindle. For an Apple zealot though, the iPad offers all kinds of added benefits: being able to swap out my laptop for an electronic note-taking device, plus email, internet, calendar, contacts, music, and whatever book I'm reading is an equation that results in less back pain. and less commute stress. For many of the same reasons as you, I wasn't that involved with the idea of an e-book reader - it just came with the product I was really interested in - but then I had the incident described in my post and some lights started to go on in my head. I suspect, a year from now, I'll realise I've shifted over to buying mostly electronic books and, just like CDs, that transition will have been very smooth, born purely from convenience. But making that switch has, I think, very real benefits for Sula and I.

    Recently, we have been doing a chunk of research about our retirement cottage - a bungalow for when our knees and backs can no longer handle stairs - and a big part of that is figuring out how much space we can afford. Our retirement pool is X, and how far can we make X stretch based on how long can we reasonably expect to live and what living will cost us?

    In our current house (which has three floors) we are already wondering where we can fit another bookcase in and trying to shoehorn all this stuff into a one-level home is madness. Also, once I really started looking at the books I own, I noticed that many of them are titles I wasn't crazy about and will never read again. I'm just storing them because I love books and I love having stacks of them, which is starting to feel a little crazy. If I switch to e-books, I will miss the tactile thing, but I don't expect to do away with books completely. I can now see a time when I read everything on a device and only buy hard copies of the titles I really love.

    Peace, Pops :)


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