Friday, December 18, 2009
Curling up with a good e-book?
Digital books will transform the world of publishing. Who now will be the true guardians of literary merit, asks Philip Hensher in The Telegraph.
A scene from Christmas 2020: an averagely bookish family, in a north London suburb without a second-hand bookshop, where the Waterstone's sells only morocco-bound complete editions, and the newsagent sells only sweets.
At home, a wife is reading from an oblong screen, grey-backed. Her husband doesn't know what she is reading without asking her. Still, he knows that at breakfast time on Christmas Day she will wake up to find that the text of the Man Booker prize winner this year, Dame Katie Price's Emerald, has been downloaded on to her reading device with a cute reindeer logo attached.
Grandma is reading, too; she always thought Pride and Prejudice would be much more entertaining if it were told in the first person, narrated by Kitty, and a download costing two euros has delivered this interesting variant to her.
Our hero orders supper for all of them from www.supper.com, and sits down to get on with his own reading, The Modest Years, the newly published seventh volume of Tony Blair's autobiography. Before continuing, he adjusts the settings so as to omit any mention in the text on his screen of the Iraq war, Cherie Blair, or John Prescott's eating habits.
Bedtime comes, and our hero goes upstairs with his reading engine to give the kids a bedtime story. Unfortunately, the story of Please Don't Eat the Chairs, Mr Crocodile is over in 49 words, and the pictures, though carefully designed for the reading engine, are small and difficult
He gets through 17 electronic stories before little Ethel hits the engine with her fist, breaking the screen. Father is downcast: he won't be able to read anything until a replacement comes, which could mean three weeks.
When he comes down, Grandma and her 13-year-old grandson are talking about an old book that Kevin is enjoying, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. "My grandmother – your great-great grandmother – gave me a special hardback edition," says Grandma, and Kevin just stares. "I don't know what happened to that," she goes on. "When you're finished, could you lend it to me?"
Kevin stares again. "How can you lend someone a book?" he says, baffled, and everyone laughs. Silly old Grandma.
Books have been coming in electronic form for decades now, first on discs, and subsequently in downloads. Project Gutenberg, which aimed to digitise and archive cultural works, was founded as long ago as 1971, and reached 1,000 titles as early as 1996. The first devices specifically designed to read e-books, as they were now termed, were on the market in 1998.
Read Hensher's full piece at The Telegraph online.