Tuesday, 29 June 2010
Will Kobo Kill the Book?
Being on holidays, I was recently in the nearest metropolis for a couple of days where I spent a bit of time in Borders. As most of you will know Borders actually provide comfy chairs for customers to sit in while they read their books, and there’s an in-house coffee shop as well - what a change from 20 years ago when I remember being chastised by a book shop owner for spending too much time at the shelves reading! Anyway, while at Borders I checked out their Kobo e-reader - there were none to buy as they had sold out (and I didn’t have the funds anyway), but there were two display models you could play with. Now, I’m fully aware this will be old hat to most of my overseas readers, but you have to realise that a) this new technology always reaches Australia late because we’re a small market on the wrong side of the planet, and b) your glossator still favours a Parker fountain pen and a mechanical watch, which is to say that he is not exactly on the cutting edge of the latest technological advances. Ball point…what’s that? Seriously, I’m not quite a Luddite but I am innately conservative when it comes to change. Call me perverse, but I still prefer analogue to digital even when the advantages of the latter are explained to me.
Maybe it’s a generational thing? When I started primary school we wrote on slates, and I graduated from high school before computers entered the classroom. Yes, that’s right, when I started primary school in the late 1960s we still used slates (just like the one pictured) and chalk to do our maths rather than paper - it was an economy measure I suppose, but for all intents and purposes we were educated in a 19th century classroom. The desks were hardwood in a wrought-iron frame and still had holes for ink pots!
When I think of it, the Kobo reminds me of a slate.
The educational setting I experienced was probably not much different from 100 or probably even 500 years prior, which was why we valued books so highly, I suppose. Books were precious, not just because they were comparatively uncommon and expensive objects, but because the written word was our window into the wider world of knowledge and learning. Even the oral instruction of our teachers directed us to texts, which is where the real learning took place as our minds engaged with the thoughts of the great and good (the remnants of classical education were still in place, although rapidly being displaced by Deweyan modernism). Anyway, enough of the personal, you get the picture!
So, will the Kobo and its ilk do away with the book, in the same way that video killed the radio star? Perhaps. I think Google Books might very well kill the second-hand book shop. Classic texts that I searched high and low for in second-hand bookshops just a decade ago are now available freely on the ’net, and if those texts are ever converted fully to the electronic format it might convince even me to buy a Kobo. E-tunes are already killing CD retailers, just as the advent of CDs put an end to vinyl a generation ago...and faux leather bound sets of encyclopaedias, for that matter. Of course, vinyl never quite disappeared altogether, because some perverse people preferred the crackle and hiss to sterile digital perfection (and I suppose because live DJs ‘invented’ that creative manipulation of records on a turntable that my parents used to scold me for doing), and so I imagine that there will always be people who crave the feel and smell of a leather-bound book. But books, I think, will become very much a niche market rather than a mass market product (if they aren't already), particularly as my generation takes up e-readers. And it is my generation, people in their 30s and 40s, that e-readers will appeal to, particularly as we grow older and our eyes become weaker and the advantages of a back-lit text become apparent, not to mention the advantages of carrying a whole library around in your briefcase or handbag (and I suppose an e-reader that actually reads the book to you is not that far away). But I can’t see many teenagers walking around with Kobos in their knapsacks. Not because the technology doesn’t appeal, but because the very idea of reading a text for enrichment of the imagination or growth in knowledge is becoming so antiquated.
It is indeed a thing to ponder that I and millions like me could be educated in a manner that was almost unchanged from medieval times, and yet we acquired an education which equipped us for life-long learning through reading, whereas children today live in a world of technological advancement that only existed in the imaginations of science fiction writers when I was a child, and yet they seem so apparently uninterested in knowledge for its own sake. It's as though the modern preference for learning through video has altered the very structure of children's brains by the time they become youths, not to say impoverished their imaginations. Parents, teach your children to love books, not just as objects but as windows into the wider world of learning and thought!
It is not Kobo that will kill the book, but our benighted popular culture and the acquiescence of educators and parents to its exaltation of entertainment over knowledge.