The following is a summary of my opening remarks.
e-books. I have no quarrel with e-books as such. But I love the tactile nature of paper-based books. Like to see them on shelves. I even like the smell of them. But I can’t deny the convenience of e-books.
So e-books have their place but there are important reasons why we mustn’t let them take over. There will come a tipping point at which time they’ll become the norm. And I think that matters.
Do any of you remember the beta video recorder and the 31/2 inch floppy disc—two pieces of technology that have disappeared into oblivion. Where is the hardware to activate the information
contained in beta-tapes and 31/2 inch floppies? Do we care? Should we care? What would we have missed as readers if Austen, Dickens, White and countless others were only available as museum pieces? Or lost in obsolete technology? We don’t quite value or even trust something that exists only in cyberspace as there is always that feeling of impermanence.
Then there are libraries which are an important means of social inclusion. They exist in real time and space and are meeting places, learning places, places for research. And they house books and newspapers that cost us nothing to borrow. Can you imagine how swiftly the funding axe will fall if e-books become the predominant paradigm? No costly infrastructure, minimum staff and if you can afford an ipad or a kindle, you can still have free access to books.
Then there is the manner we read on screen. There is growing evidence that students skim read to an alarming extent and want their information to be instant and painless. Real learning and real scholarship come from reading with care and patience, and this doesn’t fit the instant gratification supplied by technology.
But the more important than any of the arguments for and against is the issue of political censorship. In May 1933, the Nazis rounded up and burned all the books that threatened their regime. But these were only the copies they had access to. In private homes and libraries
and bookshops all over the world, copies of these books were available and now outside the Humboldt university in Berlin, just across from where the burnings
took place, you can buy these books from a street-stall.
Now, picture a time when all books are electronic, the master copies in the hands of a few or
even one multi-national publisher. How easy it would be for a new Hitler or Stalin or Rupert Murdoch to edit or destroy the master copies of books that challenge their political agenda. These books, and the thoughts contained in them, would quietly disappear from electronic catalogues or survive with the offending passages edited. In a one, two generations, the very existence of
those books would be forgotten.
The burning in this case is metaphorical, but as Heinrich Heine says, Where they
burn books they will ultimately burn people.
Let’s not make it too easy for them.