No one is calling the 1900s the Century of the Book. But you could make a case for it. For most of those years, the heavy hitters in our culture landed their big punches between the covers of bound boards: Joyce, Freud, Proust, Salinger, Orwell... even Bill Gates weighed in, twice. Sure, television eventually mesmerized the nation and the globe, but the number of books printed in the fading century surely dwarfed the pro- duction of all previous eras. And when e-commerce began, what did its flagship, Amazon.com, sell? Duh.
Still, when Y3K pundits look back on our time, they'll remember it as the Last Century of the Book. Why? As a common item of communication, artistic expression and celebrity anecdote, the physical object consisting of bound dead trees in shiny wrapper is headed for the antique heap. Its replacement will be a lightning-quick injection of digital bits into a handheld device with an ultrasharp display. Culture vultures and bookworms might cringe at the prospect, but it's as inevitable as page two's following page one. Books are goners, at least as far as being the dominant form of reading.
Most of the pieces are already in place: fast chips, long-lasting batteries, capacious disk drives and the Internet. Only two things, really, hold us back from having reading devices that are just as felicitous as the dust-jacketed packages we know and love. One is high-speed wireless bandwidth, so that the devices can be quickly loaded. Fixing that is a no-brainer. No one doubts that such a big digital transmission system will show up early in the millennium.
The second is a screen whose output is as sumptuous as the current books', which engage not only our minds but our sense of touch. Oh, and having it cost so little that we won't hesitate to drag the thing to the beach or grab it on the way to the loo. In other words, cheap enough to lose.
What are the odds of that happening? Let's see. In the last 50 years, we've made computers thousands of times more powerful, while shrinking them from the size of a basketball court to something you can cradle in your palm. All while dropping the price tag from millions of bucks to a few hundred. Does it really seem plausible that sometime next century we can't make a device that approximates the size and heft of a book or magazine, with a screen that's every bit as easy on the eyes as the Modern Library edition of "Sense and Sensibility"? Unless the world's computer scientists suddenly get struck stupid, we're going to get those devices, and they'll probably cost so little that we'll pay nothing for them--they'll be given away by content moguls so that we can buy more 21st-century news, pictures and literature. "The cards have been dealt," says Microsoft e-book czar Dick Brass. "The only difference is how fast people will play the hand."
Skeptics focus on the failings of the current generation of e-books. These are paperback-size readers with fairly clear type but backlit screens that don't compare with the things routinely shelved at the local Barnes > Noble. Still, I recently polished off a Stephen King novel in e-book form, an adventure tale involving a little girl lost in the woods. After a few screens' worth of King-speak, I was sufficiently sucked into the tale to pretty much forget about the medium, and I finished the novel in a few hours. I doubt that I would have gotten any more or less from it if I'd paged through the hardback.
Bottom line: you can use those things, even as unattractive and uncool as they are now. "And within five years," promises NuvoMedia CEO Martin Eberhard, "we'll have front-surface technology that doesn't require you to read behind glass." So it's easy to see how, when the reading experience gets better, e-books will overwhelmingly swamp the objections of book mavens like Sven Birkerts, a literary critic whose book "The Gutenberg Elegies" eloquently sheds tears over the coming purge. "The loss will be important, but it's elusive to specify," he says. "We'll miss the culture of the book, the envelope of associations."
An understandable complaint. But once we get past the question of whether the e-book will dominate, we can ponder a more interesting issue: what are the changes that will accompany the shift? The first big upheaval will come, of course, in the business of publishing. When publishers no longer have to focus on moving pulped forests to distributors, the business model will go bananas. "The turning point is going to come when one of the brand-name authors actually bolts and goes direct to readers," says one executive at a major publishing house, who even ventures a guess who that author might be: Stephen King. The master of horror is not only a perennial best seller, but a roll-the-dice kind of guy who's previously pulled headline-grabbing book-release stunts (like dribbling out "The Green Mile" in six easy pieces). So what's to stop him from selling "The Dead Again Zone" or some other 2004 thriller exclusively by $12 downloads in e-book format from StephenKing.com--and raking in a 100 percent royalty, after the relatively minimal expenses of formatting the book and maintaining the server? Such only-available-in-bit books would be the sort of killer app that spikes sales of e-readers. And after King does it, will Clancy, Grisham and Tom Wolfe be far behind?
When--not if--that happens, there will be widespread panic on book row. After all, the profits of big-time book publishing these days involve shipping tons of would-be blockbusters and hoping that they don't come back unsold. Brand-name authors minimize the risk and reap the biggest profits. But if every brand-name author had the wherewithal to make it on his or her own by self-publishing e-books, the publishers might have to look elsewhere.
This could have a salutary effect on the business, and not just for authors and readers. For years we've been hearing about how publishers neglect the serious novels and nonfiction on what is known as the midlist. These are books launched with moderate advances on interesting subjects. Unlike tell-alls by murderers' girlfriends, memoirs of professional wrestlers and philosophical insights from stand-up comedians, these are the books that enable editors to look themselves in the mirror at night. Freed from fretting about the mechanics of distributing blockbusters, those editors might find time to carefully nurture books of quality--and be more aggressive in helping those books find their audiences. They'll have a great tool at hand: the Internet, perfect for identifying even the most obscure niches.
And if publishers don't concentrate their efforts on selling those midlist books more effectively? Then they could say goodbye to those authors, who will migrate to a new breed of electronic booksellers who will do just that.
In the long term, the e-book's most startling effect will involve what goes between the virtual covers. After all, the most notable feature of these new reading devices will be that all of them will be connected to the Internet. That simple fact will trigger profound changes.
First, watch for a change in the way we read. Physical books are discrete objects that open up to small worlds; connected e-books will offer the world. Only a few pokes on the touchscreen, and you're no longer in the middle of the novel you've been devouring--you're in the middle of some other book, or a critic's gloss on your reading material. Or maybe you're grooving to some streaming-audio tune. We may see the literary equivalent of channel surfing. "It will depreciate the author," laments Birkerts.
Finally, watch for the works themselves to change. Some kinds of books will instantly disappear. (Why would you want a static travel guide when you can instantly access all the up-to-date dope on any place in the world?) Familiar creative forms will slowly evolve to conform to the new medium. The novel, after all, fits neatly into the covers of physical books: long enough to be worth buying, but not too bulky to drag around. Without being confined by those physical limitations--and with the ability to include other kinds of digital media--creative minds will inevitably find new forms of expression. Will authors satisfy us with shorter stories? Lengthy tales that make "The Magic Mountain" look like a molehill? Soundtracks? Linguistic samplings that interweave new prose with previous classics or even random gatherings like ad copy or cartoons? Who knows? Just trust that every new medium finds its exploiters.
Meanwhile, true bibliophiles shouldn't get too broken up. The death of books won't necessarily mean the disappearance of books. Microsoft's Brass echoes the view of most observers when he says those of us raised on the pleasures of page turning and shelf browsing will ensure that all the world's volumes won't go up in one big "Fahrenheit 451" bonfire. "Books will persist because they're beautiful and useful," he says. "They're like horses after the automobile--not gone, but transformed into a recreational beast."