Do you want a download with that?
20.10.08 | Stephen E Andrews
At a William Gibson event I attended in 1996, a fan asked the author what he thought about the future of books. Gibson replied that, as enamoured as he was of the format, it might be necessary for environmental reasons to one day dispense with print and to issue everyone with an electronic device capable of storing hundreds of volumes. This prophecy scared me, as I was horrified by the prospect that if I met Gibson again, there might be no physical object for the author to sign for my collection of modern firsts and ephemera. I immediately vowed never to sell my growing cache of Gibson collectables.
If it were up to me, every book I want would be issued in a signed, numbered, slipcased limited edition, bound in full leather (or at least very handsome cloth), and I’d be able to afford it.
Consequently, I’m still somewhat appalled by the concept of the e-reader, but increasingly, I’m warming to their virtues. Portable, environmentally sound, useful for voracious readers lacking the budget to buy a bigger house with acres of shelf space, e-readers clearly have many good points. They also present a massive threat to academic bookselling. As for their probable effect on student reading habits, don’t ask about my theories on that subject, as we’ll be here all night.
But when I want to read on a train or plane, or when I need to research-read novels not in my collection for my next Must-Read project, I desire portability, economy and utility. So what else would convince bibliophiles like me to buy an e-reader? In '96, Gibson suggested a focus on design—a device that resembles a book, with a spine, that one opens in classic codex style, with a handsome Moleskinesque binding. It could still be small enough to satisfy the trendy youths who increasingly decide which technology catches on, while retaining the gravitas of an authentic tome.
This is where we need to look to a related trade for guidance. We can keep the book alive in an age of downloads by treating it with the reverence now bestowed upon that romantic carrier, the vinyl disc. Records have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, as all the cool kids instinctively revere the iconography and glamour of the LP and 7" single. Even young people without turntables are purchasing vinyl because of its cultural authenticity, and the music industry is rewarding this by more often than not including download codes for a free MP3 copy with each record sold. Therefore, next time I buy a hardback novel, I’m hoping to find an e-book copy download code enclosed gratis too.