Death of the e-reader?

October 14, 2015

I read last week that sales of a certain e-reader are so low that Waterstones are to stop selling them. Is the day of the e-book coming to an early end, I wondered? And that got me thinking about the nature of texts.

I know that hieroglyphs, one of the earliest kinds of sign-making, originally represented specific objects, later coming to stand for specific sounds, and that this was a stage on the way to the developments of alphabets, and the kinds of writing most of us are familiar with, unless you are Chinese, in which case you have ideograms, which to me seem to be a different progression from hieroglyphs.

What one writes on has also moved on; clay and wax tablets co-existed with papyrus and vellum; lightness and flexibility seem to have been the game-changers. The Romans wrote on scrolls, and these have serious limitations in terms of usability, which seem to be similar to the limitations of e-books: when the codex gradually developed into the paper book which we recognise, had it reached its most flexible and lasting form?

If you’re reading a certain column in a long scroll, you are basically stuck there; you can go back or fast-forward a column or two relatively easily, but that’s it. The same is true of an e-book, really, unless you know exactly what page something you’re looking for is on, and page numbers may change if you adjust the font size… with a ‘real’ book, you can easily flick through all the pages in either direction pretty rapidly, and your eye can often pick out what you’re looking for from the smallest of clues. Or you can jump to the index, or table of contents. Obviously the paper book can be reasonably light, pretty durable, and apart from daylight needs nothing else to enable you to read it. And books that have sat on my shelves, in some cases for a decade or two, can still be opened and read. True, the glue may have rotted and the paper be foxed, especially if it’s a book printed in Britain, but no-one has had an e-reader long enough to try the same experiment yet.

I have an e-reader, and use it very occasionally. It’s earned its keep through allowing me to read long out-of-print books that cost a small fortune to buy in paper form. But I’m not sure I’d buy one again, now. I think that the rise of the tablet has doomed the e-reader, even though reading is actually easier on an e-ink screen.

I can see that it’s logical for reference books and dictionaries to be replaced by online electronic versions: they’re much more up-to-date and easier to access. I find it so much easier to refer to online dictionaries when I’m reading a book in French: type in the word, and there’s the definition; no 2kg of Petit Robert to haul up from the floor with its 2500 pages to turn through. When I’m doing my German or Spanish homework, an online dictionary is really helpful: all possible variants, parts of speech, tenses etc illustrated on the same page, again triggered by the typing of a single word.

So I think the e-reader was a passing phase, an attempt to improve on something that didn’t really do the trick, or at least insufficiently well to break the monopoly of paper. And the tablet has its place for reference books or books on holiday, and probably scores because it can do so many other things as well. And although the fields where paper does it best have narrowed slightly, the death of the printed book is not about to happen.


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