Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading (2 page)

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
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Introduction to “Bookmarks”

In the ebook revolution, the nature of books and the reading process is changing. Ebooks include everything useful that came before them in books. They add to the reading experience, not detract from it. But many now-familiar elements of print books are going the way of the dodo. Some will die out entirely; others will morph into something new. In part this is good—who’s going to miss paper cuts, after all? But with this change also comes the loss of familiar friends.

The “bookmark” at the end of each chapter takes a look at an element of print books we have come to love or loathe and how it will be affected, transformed, or eliminated by the move to ebooks. As used here, the term “bookmark” is kind of a visual pun. Not only does it refer to an artifact from traditional print books, but each “bookmark” also is a small interlude that describes the ways books have indelibly marked our lives and our culture of reading. These sections are at once sentimental and speculative and appear throughout the book like bookmarks between chapters.

I will explain later in this book that I think there’s really just one book, the book of all human culture. I’ll describe what this one book might look like—as a sort of Facebook for Books, where all books can interact and link to one another in the same way that we ourselves are linked together on Facebook, as friends, coworkers, and family. We don’t have this singularly hyperlinked book yet, but in an effort to build it, I’ll invite you to talk with me and other readers throughout this book.

At the end of each “bookmark,” you’ll see a link you can—and should!—click to continue the conversation online. And I do encourage you to click each link; it lets you into a social reading app that connects you (via Facebook or Twitter) with other readers, with me, and with surprises all along the way. This app is simple to install and unlocks the brave new world of what I call “Reading 2.0.” It’s a world that combines a conversation with the author, a virtual book club, and a thoughtful friend who brings you special notes and treats. Please note: the web page is an independent site maintained by me and is independent of this book’s publisher.

Clicking the link at the end of each “bookmark” unlocks a sequence of surprises and gifts—starting with a personalized autograph, bonus chapters, unexpected objects falling out from between the “pages” of the book, ways to carry on the conversation with other readers, and a personalized message upon completing the book. You need to click each link to unlock all the surprises.

I look forward to talking to you, because the greatest revolutionaries in the ebook revolution are the readers. We’re all part of this revolution, and we’re all mourning the culture of print books in our own ways. Everyone I talk to cares about the written word and has a strong opinion on where books are headed. Everyone has a story about books and ebooks and how they’ve changed our lives. So what’s your story? Click the link below to share it with me and other readers—and get your autograph too!


The History of Books

If you’ve never used a Kindle, imagine a device the size of a book that can wirelessly download ebooks from Amazon’s online store. These ebooks can be read just like regular books—you can turn pages, add bookmarks, see the cover, and go to the table of contents. But unlike regular books, ebooks also let you resize the text to make it bigger or smaller. Ebooks let you look up a word right there on the page to see its definition. Kindles are part computer, part book, and part cloud.

The packaging on the original Kindle box shows an illustrated history of the written word. Starting from the left-hand side, you see symbols in hieroglyphics and cuneiform, then you see Greek and Roman letters carved in stone, then woodblock medieval printing, finally followed on the right-hand side of the box by letters in modern alphabets on paper. The story of the written word is a story of evolution. In fact, the history of printing is one of a decline in durability and a rise in convenience.

Printing started 6,000 years ago with cuneiform tablets from the Middle East. These were created from wedges carefully cut from mud, fired in a kiln, and made into tablets. The process had more in common with sculpture than writing, but it was durable. We’re still uncovering clay tablets from all over that region. I’d like to think that printing was invented to tell the stories of noble heroes and the elder goat-gods with their white beards, but no, most of these tablets were just bills and invoices. For example, in October 2012, an archive of 24,000 cuneiform business documents was found in central Turkey. It’s a 6,000-year-old hoard of checks, tax forms, and loan notes.

Almost as old as clay tablets is papyrus, which is made from woven reeds like those that grow along the Nile. They’re not as durable as clay and gradually decay, although in the Egyptian desert, you can still find fragments of papyrus preserved by desert sands and dust through the subsequent millennia. As writing boomed, the supply of reeds started dwindling, and in the fifth century BC, a new type of writing technology was developed, in which animal skins were made into parchment scrolls. Parchment lasts about a thousand years, and being made of animal skin, it’s quicker to decay than papyrus and quick to crack, as anyone who owns a leather jacket or suede pants knows.

Paper was invented next, an even more convenient technology for printing, because wood pulp could be mashed up, laid out on racks to dry, and then cut into many thin sheets. It was much cheaper to make than any previous technology, but less durable. Even now, almost 2,000 years after its invention, paper only lasts about 500 years at best before yellowing and brittling to dust. Even the use of metal salts to make more durable acid-free paper isn’t a recipe for immortality.

Over the last millennium, there have been other regional innovations in print technology, such as the use of palm leaves in Southeast Asia or birchbark among some of the Native Americans, but by and large, human civilization has predominantly used paper until now.

The history of book printing is wormy with false starts. For example, woodblock printing emerged around 200 AD in China before being rediscovered in Europe more than a thousand years later. Likewise, movable type was discovered and used to print books in Korea seventy-five years before it was rediscovered by Johannes Gutenberg, the credited inventor of modern printing. But it wasn’t a single invention alone that sparked the blossoming of books in the Middle Ages. Gutenberg combined many inventions including moveable type, as well as the printing press and oil-based inks. The combination of all of these allowed book printing as we know it to succeed.

We don’t know how he came up with these ideas and merged them together. In fact, we don’t even know what Gutenberg looked like. The earliest illustrations of him didn’t emerge until well after he died. Except for his innovation, he’s an almost absolute enigma, except for the occasional lawsuit filed against him. It would have been amazing if Gutenberg or one of his workers had written about making the first books, but they never did, or if so, their writing didn’t endure. There’s no written record of Gutenberg’s workshop, but I imagine it would have been a lot like where newspapers were once printed, before the linotype and lead type were replaced by photography and digital typesetting.

The technology Gutenberg used in the 1450s was almost the same as the newspaper technology at my father’s company three hundred years later in the latter half of the twentieth century. When I was a kid, I used to visit my father’s newspaper on weekends. I would see enormous linotype machines that looked like a cross between typewriters and church organs, overheated machines belching steam while their operators sat with their burly 1970s mustaches and sweat-stained T-shirts, working to produce metal type.

The type would then be put into racks and ratcheted in with wrenches. Each line of the newspaper would be set with spacers between lines, and then the whole rack would be moved on an enormous system of pulleys to a room where it would be cast in molten metal, into a metal plate that could finally be used to print a page of newsprint on rolls of paper with ink.

The pressmen who worked there had mangled fingers and ink stains like semipermanent tattoos on their arms. They’d be smoking cigarettes from the moment they came to work until they left at 4:00 a.m., working late every day to print the news. In the lunchroom, they’d munch on hot dogs and donuts, the smell of sauerkraut as thick as the ink stains on the walls.

I imagine Gutenberg’s workshop to be somewhat similar, with ink-stained and metal-scarred men working in dark rooms, sharing their lunches at a dark table in the back, drinking beer together. And maybe there’s a dog or two in the corner, nuzzling at some grunt sleeping off the beer he had for lunch. The workshop would have been smoky from lampblack, boiling linseed oil, and cauldrons of molten lead.

You would hear the sounds of the press as it was squeezed, like a grape press to make wine; you’d hear the groans of grunts as they turned the screws of the printing presses, the creaking of wet wood against metal. Scraps of books and Bibles would litter the floor, along with pages from calendars showing the best time to do bloodlettings or letters from the Pope printed to rally support against the Turks. There would be splurts of hardened metal on the floor and rows of metal slugs. With a word as soft and slippery as “slug,” it’s hard to imagine them being made out of metal, but a
is a line of type made from copper, all the letters neatly arranged and ready to be inked for printing.

In my mind, the workshop would be divided into sections for casting molten metal, for pressing it into paper with ink, and for the racks of moveable type that could be maneuvered into place to set each line by laborious line for whatever was being printed at the time. In Gutenberg’s day, it was too expensive to print an entire page of a book from one copper plate, which is how they did it at the newspaper when I was a child.

Copper was only affordable enough for Gutenberg to do one line of type at a time. He could set a line and then disassemble the letters and words once that line was printed. If he needed to print more of the same Bibles or books, they would have to be hand-set from scratch, page by page, all over again. But it was the most he could afford.

It was a dark and secretive workshop, just as secretive as any tech company today, for fear of outsiders stealing this brilliant idea. Even in the 1450s, secrecy was paramount. It was an age before patent law, and innovators had no other way to protect themselves besides confidentiality. There was talk at the time that the English and Dutch were developing their own printing presses, and Gutenberg had to be careful. So all the Germans in his workshop huddled together and kept their knowledge and books secret within the fortress of its walls.

Amazon, Apple, and Google are a bit like medieval fortresses in their own ways. They’re secretive like China or Japan before they were opened up to Westerners, or like Tibet or Mecca, closed to foreigners, with rare exceptions like Sir Richard Burton, an explorer who dressed like a local and sneaked inside with his binoculars and surveying rods. In a way, it’s appropriate to speak of Amazon and other ebook companies in a medieval sense, because although ebooks seem so advanced, we’re really just emerging from the Dark Ages of reading today.

Gutenberg was just as obsessive as Steve Jobs of Apple or Jeff Bezos of Amazon. He is known to have spent months worrying about how many lines of text should be printed on one page and varying the number to find the optimal balance between cost and aesthetics. By increasing the number of lines, he could reduce the number of pages that needed to be printed, but this made the book more difficult to read.

Interestingly, I’ve seen the same situation play out in Amazon’s conference rooms. I’ve been in meetings with Jeff and his vice presidents where he obsessed about the number of lines that would appear on the Kindle screen. I’ve seen his 3:00 a.m. emails after those meetings. I’ve seen his mind wriggle and squirm just as obsessively as Gutenberg’s, and about the same feature. It’s as if we had to reinvent printing during the ebook revolution, and men like Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Eric Schmidt were Gutenberg’s ghosts, reincarnated hundreds of years later.

It’s still amazing to me that a billionaire like Jeff—with an enormous business empire and a company that makes rocketships, no less—would take hours out of his life to obsess about line spacing, of all things! But attention to detail matters. Revolutionary innovations and products live or die by such obsession—and I believe Jeff wanted Kindle to be his legacy to history. He wanted it to succeed.

Printing as we know it eventually emerged from the Dark Ages. The actual quantity of books produced during the early years was relatively small—but with every decade afterward, books became cheaper as new technologies were introduced. Mezzotint. Offset printing. Lithographs. Electric typesetting. The mass-market paperback. And as literacy around the world increased decade by decade, more and more books came to be printed because there was an audience for them.

With the advent of internet technologies like eBay and Amazon, it was possible by the late 1990s to find and acquire almost any book ever written (for a price, anyway). By the turn of the twenty-first century, we were practically flooded with printed books. Once the bulwarks of wealth and prestige, once gilded and bound in fine leather and placed behind glass cabinets in showy libraries and drawing rooms, books were now cheap commodities. You could go to any used bookstore on a weekend and see racks and racks of books sitting forlornly under an awning—a sad sight for a book lover.

As a culture, we’re still very bookish, very literate, even though books are no longer the entertainment medium of choice they once were. And while it’s easier to collapse at the end of a hard day on your soft couch in front of your TV or laptop to watch your favorite show, there’s still a place for books in our lives, because they are the rawest and truest form for telling stories and collecting, analyzing, and communicating information and ideas. The beauty of books is that you approach them at your own pace. Not only can you read at your own speed, but you also can skip from section to section, nonlinearly.

Of course, books have their limitations. They’re heavy. They’re hard to lug around on a vacation or pack in boxes whenever you move into a new home. Books are cumbersome, and it’s hard to find what you’re looking for in them. They can get out of date quickly. They age and mildew, rot and crumble.

Those of a future generation will one day look back on printed books with the same benign and befuddled expressions that we use when we look at floppy disks or those colossal IBM mainframes with spinning reels of tape that you see in the background of the villain’s lair in James Bond movies. Books are bulky, and an individual book doesn’t hold much data compared to what an e-reader can hold.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m a book lover: some of my best friends are books. But I see the limitations of books, and I see ebooks as their natural continuation. And yes, this means that one of the challenges we’re going to have as ebook readers is to accept that reading is a technology-based experience. That means the culture of reading will evolve and change like all technologies do. This might seem troubling to some, but remember that print technology has also evolved over the centuries. It simply had a 500-year head start, and there aren’t many evolutions left for it.

By the time you and I started reading as kids, print was basically done evolving. But we’re still on the rapid exponential rise of technology’s evolution for ebooks. Also, as an insider in the publishing and retail worlds, I can tell you that you’re going to start seeing far more ebooks and fewer print books. Readers are migrating to digital, and ebooks are a more attractive financial proposition for publishers; the economics are simply better.

Print books will, of course, still be published, but primarily for blockbusters, the kinds of books that will get lots of press, lots of advertising. Of course, there will also still be an attractive market for print books as collectibles, whether they’re antiquarian books or special-edition commemorative hardcovers. But ebooks will rule the day, and when people a few years from now talk about “books,” what they’ll really be referring to are ebooks, not print books. Eventually the “e” will be dropped, and books will be assumed to be digital, just as most music is now digital; after all, we don’t refer to music as e-music.

» » »

The future of books is fraught with possibilities and dangers. With ebooks, we’re no longer reading on paper but on eInk or LCD screens, and although each type of screen has its own technology, behind every e-reader is a hard drive of some sort, something that stores the books you read.

Hard drives are the new clay tablets for books. The reason we love them so much is that they’re so cheap to manufacture, these thin wafers of silicon and circuitry that are often made without any moving parts. Hard drives are ridiculously convenient, and our civilization rests on them; the web itself is supported by air-conditioned data centers all around the globe, vast buildings where hives of hard drives hum away.

BOOK: Burning the Page: The eBook revolution and the future of reading
3.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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