The eLitists vs. the eBook 

The eLitists vs. the eBook 

The eLitists vs. the eBook 

The world of electronic books.
April 10 2001 9:00 PM

The eLitists vs. the eBook 

A new form of book has evoked searing rebukes from prominent intellectuals. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the old books, traditionalists contend. The old books never seemed antiquated, they argue, until the new books arrived. The new books, they continue, simply aren't as aesthetically pleasing as the old. There's nothing quite like holding one of the old books in your hands, this argument runs. When not questioning the need for innovation, critics disparage the new books by arguing that they don't represent sound business sense. Large numbers of consumers will never purchase the new books. What is this new form of books that has sustained such withering attacks?

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It's called … the "paperback."

Although it's difficult to imagine these days, in the early 1940s paperback books possessed a notoriety that rivaled the derision currently greeting eBooks. It is, of course, tradition for newfangled ideas to encounter some initial resistance. (One can almost hear the critics needling Gutenberg. "I don't know, Johann," a colleague surely scolded him. "What's so great about being able to move type?") Even accounting for this reluctance to adapt to new forms of reading, though, eBooks have received a particularly harsh reception.

Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson wrote one of the earliest attacks on eBooks in 1992, calling them a prime example of "retarded technology" that creates "new and expensive ways of doing things that were once done simply inexpensively." In addition to contending that people would use eBook readers for social prestige and as an adult toy, Samuelson found practical reasons to disparage the eBook: "If you take it to the beach, it gets clogged with sand. You can't use it as a pillow. If it slips off the kitchen counter, it smashes." Never mind that these shortcomings also plague automatic coffeemakers. To Samuelson's considerable credit, his feelings about eBooks have evolved over the last nine years, and now, if he doesn't exactly sing the gospel of eBooks, he scarcely damns their existence.

Samuelson's evolution, has not, alas, diminished the vitriol leveled against eBooks. The rhetoric has, if anything, become more rancorous of late. Professional curmudgeon and literary critic Harold Bloom penned (I use that word literally, as he can't type) an anti-eBook jeremiad in the New York Times. Bloom read Michael Crichton's Timeline on an eBook reader and, predictably, found the experience "dismal" in both content and form. In a perfect encapsulation of the romantic view of bound books, Bloom writes: "There are books on my shelves that I've held, and read, almost to pieces. One gets fond of the dog-eared quality, even the crooked bindings. There is comfort in them." Bloom, never one for understatement, proceeds: "There is an aura to books that is irreplaceable. The best analogue would be the aura of dead or lost friends or lovers, never quite replaceable." At the risk of sounding ageist, I'd say this fervent worship of bound books severely afflicts the geriatric. Whippersnappers—and folks who know how to type—don't mind reading some things on computer screens.

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Regrettably, Bloom's hyperbolic words are not the most outlandish on the subject. In a 1999 Harper's article, novelist William H. Gass absurdly argued that bound books are potentially more important than people: "We shall not understand what a book is, and why a book has the value many persons have, and is even less replaceable than a person, if we forget how important to it is its body, the building that has been built to hold its lines of language safely together through many adventures and a long time."

Gass' essay is called "In Defense of the Book." This title begs the question: Who exactly is attacking books? Even the most ardent of eBook enthusiasts don't believe that electronic books will ever completely replace the printed word. eBookers mean to supplement the world of printed books, not subsume it. One of the only members of the publishing establishment to grasp the role of eBooks, Jason Epstein, is also probably its most significant. As detailed in his recent edit-and-tell memoir, Book Business, Epstein created "trade" paperbacks (as distinct from "mass-market" paperbacks), helped found the New York Review of Books, and has midwifed several of the lasting books of post-World War II America. With his unrivaled powers of prescience, Epstein foresees a peaceful coexistence for eBooks and bound books.

It's rare these days for technological innovations to erase antecedents. Despite VCRs, for instance, Americans still cough up millions of dollars every weekend to see films in theaters. One suspects that we would continue to see flicks on the big screen even if motion pictures were simultaneously released to theaters and video stores. Why? Because watching a movie on your TV set from your couch next to a friend is an utterly distinct experience from going to the cinema with a roomful of strangers. The same is true with eBooks and bound books. Each format has its strengths and, while eBooks and eBook devices still needed fine-tuning—they need to be faster, cheaper, lighter, and more configurable—the world is a better place for having them.

The most encouraging aspect of today's eBooks is a trait they share with paperbacks: low cost. Some eBooks are already cheaper than paperbacks, and the reading devices are getting cheaper—a trend that will continue as the devices become more powerful. You don't have to be a shill for the eBook industry to appreciate the democratizing potential of the technology. Just as the CD-ROM lowered the price of a family encyclopedia from $1,000 to $50, the eBook should make more books available to more people at lower prices.

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It wasn't so terribly long ago, after all, that reading was an activity largely reserved for the elite. Only wealthy citizens had the means to purchase a library or the leisure time to spend on reading. I can't help but think that a combination of literary snobbery and class prejudices informs the anti-eBook animus of critics such as Bloom and Gass. For them, eBooks are the 21st-century equivalent of the dime-store novel, unspeakably middlebrow creations that have no place in a gentleman's library. British novelist Henry Green felt this scorn for paperbacks, considering them so coarse he refused republication in that form. Green wrote books about poor people, but he couldn't be bothered to care if poor people actually read them. Let the purists fetishize bound books and wax nostalgic about the joys of prowling used bookstores in search of that elusive first edition of Sister Carrie. I'll happily read my Dreiser as an eBook.

eBook ellipses: Is anyone else out there perturbed by the capitalization structure of the word "eBook"? I prefer all lowercase: "ebook." We don't have "eMail," so why don't eRase the eXtremely annoying capital "B" from "eBook"? How are you supposed to spell it when it appears at the beginning of a sentence? EBook or eBook? Even Slate's copy desk insists on this infernal spelling, which is an eyesore and difficult to type. Let's start a movement for an all lowercase spelling now, while the word is young and still impressionable. (The copy desk replies:It's a Microsoft conspiracy—we're sucking up to our corporate overlords and our Microsoft Reader colleagues who have managed to forge a "brand" by adding a single letter to a long-established word. But be warned, even if it wasn't eBook, it would be e-book, since the "e" serves as a prefix—as in e-mail.) Some people dwarf even my considerable enthusiasm for the prospect of eBooks. Dick Brass of Microsoft boasts that he can build a book readable underwater. Now, if only he could build one that works while submerged in lava. A barnesandnoble.com ad hyping Stephen King appeared in my inbox boasting, "The King of eBooks is back!" Despite being patently ridiculous on all sorts of different levels, the ad didn't appear to contain even the vaguest hint of irony. This month's best eBook joke comes to us from Karen Sandler: Why do eBook readers always skip from "K" to "M"? Because everyone pixels. (Get it? Picks L's.) Ba-da boom! No, but seriously folks, if you, too, would like to be the envy of your friends, send an eBook joke to jdebook@hotmail.com, and your name could appear in this illustrious space. Insights into the industry are also welcome. I guess.

(Full disclosure: Slate is wholly owned by Microsoft Corp., the maker of the Microsoft Reader. Microsoft does not, however, exercise direct control over this column. OK, there's a sliding-scale payment system whereby I receive an additional $5 for each favorable mention of the Reader.) 

Justin Driver is assistant literary editor at the New Republic.