Posted by: Nicholas Davis | June 30, 2010

I may never buy a book again

Ok, that’s a bit rich, especially given that in the last two days I’ve received about 12 books in the post from Amazon. But in the last two weeks I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the idea of a future where printed paper is once again a luxury, rather than a normal part of business, leisure and education.

Why? First, I’ve enjoyed tremendously the experience of reading a few books on the iPad. Not only is it a pleasant reading experience, there’s the added bonus of less to carry on trips (I’ve just returned from a week of holiday), an end to piles of books cluttering my desk and bedside table, and the ease with which you can silently flick a page with a thumb and avoid disturbing a sleeping partner. It’s easier, almost all round.

Second, I’m worried that my physical book buying habits are environmentally unsustainable. When you combine my love of reading, lack of self-control re purchasing decisions and my extremely broad professional subject matter (covering almost anything to do with the future globally, depending on the day), you get a lot of air-shipped boxes of paper, glue and cardboard. What I save by printing double-sided at work, I spend in (sometimes unwise) book purchases.

The final straw was logging into my Amazon account to see if I really ordered both of the two copies of David Kirkpatrick’s book “the Facebook Effect” I received today, only to discover I could have had a less-cluttering, lighter, more sustainable version via the Kindle store. Maybe my mind will change, but right now I wish I’d bought the Kindle version just so that I could read it more easily, regardless of all the other benefits.

This isn’t a new argument, observation or trend, but it’s remarkable to me because I’ve started to personally appreciate a radically different future for my relationship with a prominent aspect of my life – books. This is a future where, if the (true) cost of devices like the iPad improves so that they are widely accessible, physical books might become like 35mm photographic film are today: either archival objects or the domain of analogue purists.

Of course, digital photography grew quickly because it solved a wider array of issues for photographers than digital books in their current form do for readers. Digital cameras changed the cost profile of photography (no film costs, print by design, not default), allowed instant review, enabled far easier sharing and opened up a whole new world of creative and multimedia uses to people without a darkroom, glue and scissors.

In my ideal book future, therefore, digital publishing will offer similar advantages albeit with a different cost model that focuses much more on professionally-produced content. To do this, we’ll need to replicate and extend the advantages of reading books in physical form while creating entirely new creative outlets for readers. Digital reading of books could then become a social, creative experience where commenting, quoting, editing, cutting and pasting is welcomed by authors and publishers alike. It’s already happening in various guises in the form of fan fiction and sites devoted to books, but it could be so much more. Who would want to go back to a static, isolated, off-grid piece of paper when the alternative involves the opportunity to also participate in a rich social experience?

I was a pretty serious photographer in the days of film, but I very rarely miss the days of working with slides and am continually surprised by the quality of my Nikon D300. The shift in the way I take photos, while at the time expensive, now seems in hindsight to have been both rapid and inevitable, and i would never want to give up the opportunities I now have to do extend and share my images. Today, I realised for the first time that in ten years time I may feel exactly the same about the way I read.

Addendum: I just realized that many of these thoughts may have been influence by the fact that, while on holiday, I re-read Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”. The world featured in this great novel is not only firmly post-paper, the physically printed word is regarded as an extravagance and class divider, but the main storyline covers the loss of a digital, interactive book. I clearly suffer from recency bias!

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