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An Endnote to Paper Books

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Books made of paper will go extinct. It is the inevitability of creative destruction, the same road that saw LPs and gramophones become fixtures in antique shops. Inertia and economics are the only reason paper books still exist. It is awfully hard for the 500-year-old technology of the printing press to vanish overnight, with so many generations of baggage to get rid off. But the wheels have been set in motion. Now we just sit back and watch.

Like most fads of the past, paper and ink will expire its longevity, and be replaced by matters of convenience. The e-book readers have already made an entry. The prices are high, but they will drop soon. The Amazon Kindle has already sold out in over 100 countries. Vague figures by the Cleantech Group tell us that the the Kindle is more eco-friendly than buying books. And a dozen other companies are competing with the Kindle to ensnare the literate public. For now, they will attempt to mimic paper books as closely as they can, to allow smooth transition without the unnecessary hangovers and claims of the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it.

But the nostalgia will soon fade, and the e-book readers, so far shackled in the conservative nature of people to dwell in the "good times of the past", shall break free from all the constraints and pursue a path of efficiency and optimization. It is what engineers do, create new technologies and hope that people alter their behaviors to keep up with the added conveniences that the inventions provide. Keeping up with the times, reading habits will change. Slow changes but incremental over generations.

People will find it easier to instantly download new books. With costs of distribution low, economies of scale will ensure that the costs of books fall, almost like in the music industry. A new generation of authors will evolve who don't require publishing houses, along with a new generation of interactive books, catering to the entertainment needs of millions.

But then attention spans might fall too, because too much freedom can also be too much distraction. The internet has already conditioned users to read shorter blocks of text. Other effects would include complicated copyright issues. Piracy might take over the literary world in ways unimaginable before (but then some people will always argue that piracy is actually good for authors because it allows greater exposure to their readers).

Nevertheless in the future, the newer e-book readers will seem so normal and natural, that people would wonder about the backwardness of the times when trees were cut to create those cumbersome un-interactive visual mediums of information transcription. And people will shake their heads in pity at their technology-challenged ancestors. This is how it has always been – the future always pitying the past.

But of course this will too soon be replaced by newer technologies. My best bet is electrodes in the head that download information directly to the brains. Two hundred years from now is my uneducated, vague and random guess. And then we shall talk about the anticipated extinction of e-book readers.

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About P Chandra

  • Kanishk

    My first impression of ebook readers when they came out a couple years ago was of absolute pessimism. Wondered why people would buy them when u can read ebooks on ur laptops. But I see the way people have taken to it, and its quite impressive. And I know for a fact that research is already on to create next-gen e-book readers that feel and smell like real paper, so that should take care of the inertia that you mentioned.

  • From following publishing news and blogs, I suspect you may be right about the future of paper. For my own sake I hope you’re wrong. Reading is a completely sensual pleasure. I enjoy the feel of books, the sounds of the pages, and the smell of books as they age. Call me nostalgic.

  • doug m

    Maybe one day, but I don’t think this will happen in anyone’s lifetime alive today. My books don’t run out of power and don’t get damaged when dropped. Just because it’s new doesn’t make it better

  • archisman

    your article does not mention how cumbersome handling a laptop is for reading ebooks. so specialized gadgets only for reading ebooks would be necessary, so that its easy to carry, but anyways your last para was good 🙂 and other than that it was quite uninteresting

  • Your mentioning of interactive books is spot on. Interactive fiction is a reality today by mixing together fiction and technology creating a different entertainment medium.