“About a decade ago, some publishers were predicting that books would soon be a thing of the past, and that we would all be reading downloadable texts on portable hand-held screens. Wishful thinking, it turns out.”
from “Can’t Judge an E-Book by Its Screen? Well, Maybe You Can” by Charles McGrath, New York Times 24 November 2006
When I began researching e-books in the late 1990s statements on e-books were balanced, but from 2001 onward, with the dot.com crash, McGrath’s kind of commentary rapidly grew more prominent. In The Myth of the Paperless Office (2002) Sellen and Harper made the claim that current e-books “are way off the mark when it comes to offering the kinds of tools that people need in the workplace” (p162).
What are the tools we need in the workplace? Do we need computers? It seems we do. Offices have been transformed by them, whether we like it or not. Hypertext onscreen organisation of documents lost out to a print-based pdf style of documents, which required a photocopier. Was this necessary?
Now I wouldn’t accuse McGrath (or anyone) of being a pawn or pimp in the pay of big publishing or other print-based interests, but if big publishing et al were paying McGrath to ‘write down’ the prospects of the e-book, then he couldn’t, in my opinion, do a better job.
I don’t underestimate how e-books threaten traditional publishing practices. As David Dorman wrote in 1999: “The increasing separation of the physical book from its information content is unsettling our traditional laws and practices regarding intellectual-property rights” American Libraries 30/2. But the discourse in the organised media against the e-book is now so well developed it is disabling consumer freedoms—against the e-reader in this case, but why should we quibble over a small distinction between an e-book and an e-reader, if The New York Times can’t be bothered with it (as McGrath writes: “Sony has introduced its new version of the e-book”).
McGrath claims: “…the various book-replacement devices available back then have mostly been dumped on the recycling heap. They were too hard to read, people complained, and also too heavy, guzzling so much battery power that they quickly grew hot in the hand.”
Who complained? Perhaps he could spare a line to tell us. What McGrath tells us isn’t what I found ‘back then’ when I ran a usability test in London with the two Gemstar e-readers (2001). It isn’t what another tester from Salon.com, Laura Miller, found when she tested an e-reader in 2000. McGrath sums up his position in his final line telling us that exasperated with the Sony Reader, he felt like tossing it “out on the driveway” and running “over it with the car.”
Now, who really cares what McGrath, personally, thinks of these technologies and I certainly don’t want to sell anyone an e-book or e-reader. But unbiased commentary on e-books etc. from the organised media could be useful. If organised publishing and ‘the help’ would cease drumming up fears by masquerading prejudice as rational thought, readers and book consumers would be able to see that the e-book and e-reader are no match, threat or rival to the print book. They are simply different reading tools.