Monday, April 20, 2009

How Will E-Books Change Us?

Today's Wall Street Journal has a long article (may be gated) about the Amazon Kindle and how e-books in general will change our world. Of course, the Kindle is now well over a year old, but the recent release of version 2.o has prompted a new wave of media interest.

The article's author, Steven Johnson, describes the "aha" moment most Kindlers have when they first buy a book on-line:

A few weeks after I bought the device, I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, dutifully working my way through an e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel. After a few taps on the Kindle, I was browsing the Amazon store, and within a minute or two I'd bought and downloaded Zadie Smith's novel "On Beauty." By the time the check arrived, I'd finished the first chapter.

For Johnson, this "aha" moment was when he realized how sweeping are the changes we can expect from the rise of e-books. He goes on to describe them. One in particular struck me:

... an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article -- sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.

As Johnson points out, the future of e-books is connectivity, as we've already seen with on-line content. That means more and more temptation to jump around.

I already have this problem with the web. If I'm reading a book within reach of my computer, it's all too easy, and too tempting, to jump on-line to follow up on some question the book has planted in my head. That may be good from an information-gathering perspective, but it's not good from a deep-reasoning perspective. The ability to stick to one line of thought and work it out is not something that will survive without practice.

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