The “manual transmission” of reading
The future of the book has been the subject of many stimulating conversations in the Williams household. As the publishing director for Oak Knoll Press, I am invested in the plight of the physical book. Not only do we publish high-quality printed books at Oak Knoll, but we publish on the history of the book, celebrating the book as an object valuable for its history and artistic qualities. In contrast, my husband Ian is a computer programmer who enjoys being a part of an industry working to make the world more digital and electronic. He argues that the printed book will be eventually replaced by a free and open pool of information available electronically.
Yet, both of us can see the other side to a certain extent. Neither of us owns a specialized e-reader, but we both have downloaded the Kindle app on our smartphones. While I still prefer reading a paperback to reading on my phone, I can’t argue with the convenience of always having a book with me (as I’m never far from my phone). The fact that so many of my favorite classics are available for free is a benefit that is hard to turn down. And Ian, while he argues that the information is the only important part and that the delivery mechanism is irrelevant, is surprisingly protective of his books and has been known to berate me for dog-earing the pages.
Ian likes to refer to printed media as “the manual transmission” of communication. Like an automatic transmission, the e-book has advantages in terms of convenience. And yet, automatic transmissions have been available for more than fifty years, and still a sizeable percentage of the population prefers to do the shifting themselves. I think that books are the same—readers will opt for the superior reading experience (the manual transmission) over the convenience (the automatic transmission). In fact, I think that true book lovers will be driven to an even greater appreciation for books as objects, as they start to notice things that they had taken for granted, such as high-quality materials and typography.
So I see a future where e-books and traditional books co-exist comfortably, side-by-side. The advantages of an e-book will make it the convenient choice in many circumstances, but it will not soon replace the tactile experience and the pride of ownership that a physical book elicits.