Whither Paper Books? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 10, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 10, 2011

TANGENTSBy Ihtisham Kabir

Whither Paper Books?

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End of Paper Books? Photo: Ihtisham Kabir

Many systems for making books have come and gone. First there were the prehistoric tablets of clay, found in Sumerian civilisation. Then came papyrus scrolls, tree barks, the codex, and various Chinese books. These all suffered from one major drawback: they were available to a select few people since they were not mass produced.
The movable type popularised in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg overcame that drawback by enabling mass printing of books. The Gutenberg press allowed reproduction and delivery of the written word to large numbers of people. Thus the printed book became a powerful medium for communicating the written word to readers. It has played a long innings.
Are we close to a change? Consider the following.
In 2007, the world's largest (online) bookseller Amazon introduced the Kindle, an e-book reader based on e-ink technology. Alongside paper books, Amazon started selling e-books for the Kindle.
Amazon invested considerable effort to ensure that the reader enjoys the experience of reading the Kindle. The e-ink display simulates, to some extent, the way printed word looks on paper. This helps reduce the tired eyes that result from reading too many words on a standard glossy, backlit display, such as a computer or a mobile phone. The mobility and lightness of the Kindle also make it attractive.
What were the results?
July 2010: Amazon said sales of Kindle e-books had exceeded their sales of hardcover books.
January 2011: Amazon said Kindle e-books outsold paperback books.
May 2011: Amazon sold more Kindle e-books than all paper (hardcover and paperback) books.
Others have not been sitting idly. Barnes and Noble, another large American bookseller, sells the Nook, an e-book reader also based on e-paper technology.
Apple has sold the iPad since 2010. Like Amazon, Apple has also aggressively courted book publishers to publish for the iPad.
So, is the end of paper books near?
Here is my experience after obtaining a Kindle recently.
The Kindle has many advantages. Its light 6 ounces can hold up to 1400 books (though I have downloaded only 75 books so far, 74 of them free!) I like reading e-ink. I can search through the books and change the font size to relieve my eyes. I can organise the books into virtual bookshelves. It fits in my pocket and is convenient when travelling. It is easy to find a misplaced book.
Disadvantages include confusing page numbering and far too much time spent browsing for free books.
The upshot? I still prefer reading paper books. Sure, if I want to re-read parts of Thoreau's Walden, or look up a Shakespeare quotation, Kindle is unbeatable. But for the pure pleasure of reading a new book - feeling the texture of paper and smelling it, eagerly turning the pages, thumbing through it, watching the remaining pages dwindle - I still prefer paper books.
But I harbour no illusions. Kindle and its cousins will surely send paper books to the same place that vinyl records and photographic film have gone.

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