Can the Amazon Kindle eBook Compare to the Endurance of the Printed Word?

The Amazon Kindle is great and all, but for many lovers of the printed word there is something still lacking.  The History.  We can download the newest books to our Kindles and forget about them.  We can collect and delete and have no real need to take them seriously because they have no substance anyway.  They’re just data.  Real paper books on the other hand have survived for centuries.  You can pick up a paper book from a hundred years ago and still turn the pages and read the words that somebody enjoyed long before you were born.  Can you say the same about Kindle eBooks?  The problem with this argument is, of course, that it is thoroughly ridiculous.

The virtue of an old book, to your average reader, is not necessarily its age.  The value is the information it contains.  You don’t just grab a 200 year old manuscript off the shelves for some pleasure reading.  I’m not going to say that there is nothing to be gained from a direct study of old physical texts, because there is, but for you and me it is probably more useful to pick up a brand new copy of the Commedia or Beowulf. If we are to stipulate that the value of the book is in the information it contains, which I think is fair, then the eBook on the most basic level is just a distillation of the book concept.  This on its own does not mean that the format has any particular value in the long term, though.

I think that at the core of this argument is the question of what one believes that the future will bring.  Whether or not we have faith in the potential for progress.  It is true that the paper book requires no batteries, wires, accounts, or anything else.  It can also degrade to the point of uselessness or easily be destroyed.  The Kindle requires many or all of these things, but a Kindle eBook exists independently of the physical device you hold in your hand.  It is not only here, or even on the server, but also on thousands of computers all over the world.  Even if 90% of the existing copies are destroyed, it is the work of minutes or hours to replace them should the demand grow enough.  So long as the ability to read eBook files remains, and that seems to not be going away, these books are safe and the best loved will always be around.  Unless you somehow believe that computers and the internet are a temporary thing, it just makes sense.

Now, I don’t blame people for their skepticism on this.  On a personal level it can seem a little bit off.  A Kindle book is certainly more easily forgotten or lost than a paper book.  In both cases, though, we’re talking about a single instance of the “book” as a collection of information.  Which is going to persist: a file that can be copied and replaced on demand, or a printing with a set number of units? If we’re really talking about the long term benefits of books, then this matters more than most things in my opinion.

I acknowledge that this is a narrow kind of argument that fails to take into account the benefits of having multiple formats and a wide network of distribution, but I’ve heard enough talk about how long books have survived over the years as a way of pointing out the newness and untried nature of the Kindle that it seemed worth pointing out.  Take what you will from it, but try to keep in mind that just as what is new isn’t always good it also isn’t always bad either.

4 thoughts on “Can the Amazon Kindle eBook Compare to the Endurance of the Printed Word?”

  1. Overall, I agree with you, especially about the idea that a book, or perhaps more accurately a “work of literature”, exists in all the various mediums it is written on and not in a single printing. The biggest weakness in your argument, though, is “So long as the ability to read eBook files remains…”. This is exactly why open file formats are crucial and DRM is incredibly harmful. An analogy might be that an e-book is like a regular book that’s been encoded into 1’s and 0’s and printed on a page. To read it, we need a decoder ring to turn it in to text. Some decoder rings are well documented such that we could build another one if need be, even after the company that published the book or built the original ring is long gone. DRM and closed file formats, though, mean that we have to rely on the maker of the decoder ring to exist. If they disappear, then our ebooks are just garbles of 1’s and 0’s.

    The digital dark age is a real threat, but it can be avoided so long as someone is thinking about how to archive native-digital content for the long term. It wouldn’t surprise me if paper becomes the very-long-term storage medium that are rarely touched, while e-books are the daily-use versions.

  2. A big part of the reason old manuscripts are so valuable is because most of them didn’t survive into modern times. Fire, flood, insects, and human conflict took their toll.

    How wonderful it is that today’s bits and bites can be distributed so widely that any one book can survive those disasters?

    It’s also wonderful that there will no longer be the concept of “out of print” to disappoint someone newly discovering a book, thanks also to the digital formats.

  3. I work in IT and the last thing I want to do is read another screen but I have to say after checking out a colleagues Kindle at work I was sold. The weight, being able to carry multiple books and since the screen isn’t back lit it is a pleasure to read.

    I even started my own website to promte books :)

  4. On page three of the current (August) issue of Fast Company, there’s a full-page ad for a paper-industry group called “Paper Because.” The text in the center of the page reads, in its entirety, “PAPER because it’ll be remembered longer on paper.”

    It has a website at Check it out–it’s pretty amazing.

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