Why e-books will never replace real books.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 29 2010 10:12 AM

Bold Prediction

Why e-books will never replace real books.

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I've taught college writing classes for a long time, and after computers came in, I began to see peculiar stuff on papers that I hadn't seen before: obvious missing commas and apostrophes, when I was sure most of those students knew better. It dawned on me that they were doing all their work on-screen, where it's hard to see punctuation. I began to lecture them about proofing on paper, although, at first, I didn't make much headway. They were unused to dealing with paper until the final draft, and they'd been taught never to make hand corrections on the printout. They edited on-screen and handed in the hard copy without a glance.

Handwriting is OK! I proclaimed. I love to see hand corrections! Then I noticed glitches in student writing that also resulted from editing on-screen: glaring word and phrase redundancies, forgetting to delete revised phrases, strangely awkward passages. I commenced an ongoing sermon: You see differently and in some ways better on paper than on computer. Your best editing is on paper. Try it and see if I'm right.You'll get a better grade. The last got their attention. The students were puzzled and skeptical at first, but the ones who tried it often ended up agreeing with me.

Still, none of this is black and white. For years, after I got a computer I held onto my romantic attachment to writing first drafts by hand on long legal sheets. Then halfway through a book-for-hire I got in deadline trouble and for the sake of time had to start drafting on computer. I discovered, to my chagrin, that drafting first on computer tended to come out better than by hand. Computer drafts were cleaner and crisper. But, after that, I also discovered, paper rules. The final polish, the nuances, the pithy phrases, the tightening of clarity and logic—those mostly come from revising on paper.

Mind, this is not a screed against e-media and their potential. Readers like the links in Slate articles, and so do I. My next book, on Beethoven, is planned on the one hand as a traditional text between covers with analytical endnotes and on the other as what I'm calling a "three-dimensional book." The text will be amplified by the endnotes and further amplified by a Web site, which adds more ideas and information, musical examples in sound and score, a blog, and what have you. In the e-book version, footnotes will become links, either to the Web site or to background content downloaded along with the text.

This kind of e-medium, I suspect, will be the future of history, biography, scholarship. Among other things, it makes possible a book on, say, music that is in theory available to everybody: The text for general readers, links providing instant musical illustrations for nonmusicians, other links adding technical and glossing material for scholars and musicians. The possibilities are dazzling to contemplate. They're cool in every sense of the word.


But e-book Beethoven will of course be a much different experience than the same guy between covers. Garrison Keillor has said, "On the Internet we're all hummingbirds." We flit from place to place, taking a sip here and a sip there. That's swell, but it isn't the way to read Austen *, Yeats, and Joyce. My book on an iPad or whatever will be richer in worthwhile ways, but it will be less absorbing and probably less emotionally compelling. (I'm making another prophecy of my own, that the iPad, a TV screen, will win out over the Kindle and its "e-ink," because the iPad and its clones will be far more flexible.)

So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn't wipe out horses. Movies didn't finish theater. TV didn't destroy movies. E-books won't destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print.

The über-message Marshall McLuhan proclaimed is another idea of his that stands the test of time. New media change us, not only our ideas and lifestyles but our very nervous systems. "The basic thing to remember about the electric media is that they inexorably transform every sense ratio and thus recondition and restructure all our values and institutions." That's overstated maybe, but there's something to it. We should not be blind to those kinds of changes. "Understanding is half the battle," McLuhan said. To understand media is to get a handle on them, to direct them in better ways, personally and publicly. When a new medium comes on the scene, we have to be aware and beware.

P.S. OK, this is an online piece, so it's got to have links. I didn't do them above because I wanted you to read the article first without distractions. There's been a flurry of articles on this topic lately, a lot of it sparked by Nicholas Carr's passionate defense of print and his new book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. You can read Carr's blog. In the Wall Street Journal, Carr and Clay Shirky have a back-and-forth on "Does the Internet Make You Dumber/Smarter?" Tufts reading researcher Maryanne Wolf talks about her concerns with children and computers here. None of these mentions McLuhan, but he must be chuckling in his grave, because a lot of the ideas, and the research behind them, echo what he said.

All right. Whew! All this reading and writing has strained the old attention span. I'm going to make a cup of coffee and Google myself.

Correction, July 15, 2010: This sentence originally misspelled the name of Jane Austen. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.