April 21, 2009, 8:26 AM — This morning I was reading Steven Johnson's How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write over at the Wall Street Journal. In this article, he outlines a number of ideas about where ebooks will take us. Some of them sound interesting, but honestly a lot of them sound horrific to me. Per chapter purchasing? Tailoring a book's content for better search results in Google? No thanks.
But what I find really interesting is how comfortably Johnson equates ebooks with the Amazon Kindle. A lot of what he finds compelling about "ebooks" is really the purchasing process which, for now at least, is really a function of the Kindle. He talks about buying a new book while waiting on a subway platform, for instance. The only dedicated ereader that I know of that will let you do that right now (without external internet access) is the Kindle. But in the future (Johnson speculates) ebooks will be much more connected; virtually everything he talks about beyond the buying process assumes online access.
I'm a huge armchair enthusiast when it comes to ebooks and ereaders. I write about them a lot, experience geek lust when I read about the latest ereader hardware headed our way, but honestly I don't read a lot of ebooks. The latest title I read completely electronically was Cory Doctorow's Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town which I read in iPod Notes format. Why did I read an entire book in such an odd format? Convenience. I always have my iPod with me, so I always had the book with me. To me, that's what ebooks are all about: convenience. One of the things I feel most excited about with dedicated ereaders is the ability to increase the font size after a long day spent staring at a computer screen! I like the idea of carrying around a huge stack of books in a small device. Convenience!
But Johnson is arguing, basically, that widespread adoption of ebooks will change not only the process of reading a book, but the actual content of books. In order to enjoy his vision of ebooks, we'll have to be constantly online while we read, so that we can constantly share/cite/comment/interact with other people reading the same book. The Kindle's 'always on' store is only the first step in that direction. Soon, Johnson implies, reading a book will become a community event.
But I can't help but feel that Johnson's ebooks aren't books at all. If all the changes he speculates about take place, ebooks won't be books. They'll be text-heavy websites. And that scares the heck out of me. I don't need a thread of comments dangling from the bottom of every page of a book I read. I don't want a constant torrent of opinions flowing into my head while I read a book. And let's not even discuss the issue of novel spoilers. Maybe I'm not a fan of ebooks after all! Maybe I'm finally getting why some people are so vehemently against the idea of ebooks.
What do you think of Johnson's vision of the future of ebooks? Do his ideas sound exciting, or horrifying, to you? Please leave a comment!