Two More Quick Comments on Books

March 30, 2009 9:43 p.m.

Following up on yesterday’s post on Kindle and electronic books, a couple quick thoughts.

1. First, as much as like the Kindle technology, it’s worrisome that one company — i.e., Amazon — could develop such a stranglehold on books. If I buy lots of books over the next few years for Kindle and someone else devises a better mouse trap, is my book collection held hostage to Kindle and Amazon? I’d figure probably so. Some universal or quasi-universal standards like DVDs and CDs would be nice.

2. My second concern is related but much more forward-looking. The common book requires a threshold level of eyesight and literacy in the given language. Given those two abilities in the owner, once a book comes off the publisher’s press, it takes on a life of its own. And as long as it’s kept on a shelf, relatively free of moisture and out of reach of small children, even a cheap pulp book can easily last a hundred years. Quality bound books, meanwhile, can last many centuries. Today, though, I can’t easily access even papers I wrote in college, which is a touch less than twenty years ago, because they’re on floppy disks that few computers can any longer read and written on programs (remember Word Perfect?) accessible only through imperfect conversion utilities. If big swathes of book publishing go the electronic route, how many ‘books’ will have only a short window of existence before they get marooned in derelict and outmoded technology? Tomorrow’s equivalent of Betamax, 8 Track and and now videotapes. Physical books, for all their other shortcomings, can still be read today and tomorrow regardless of technology progress or, as the case may be, regress.

I’m certainly not the first one to think about this. I know that librarians and institutional archivists have given this problem a great deal of thought. And it’s actually one reason why big institutions aren’t able to move that quickly with new technologies. Because they put a lot of time into thinking about the probable lifespan of the technology and how easily the data will be able to be ported from one storage medium to the next. But quite a lot of information and books and other artifacts of human intellection only see the light of day in the go-go world of market-driven technologies and never make it to those hallowed halls. And what will become of that stuff?

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