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Commentary: Digital Readers Vs. Traditional Books


By Chris Tucker

Dallas, TX –

Recently, Amazon, maker of the highly popular Kindle wireless reader, angered buyers by removing purchased downloads of George Orwell's novel 1984 following a dispute with a publisher. They just pushed a button and - zap! - the "books" disappeared.

This was a great irony, of course, since the main character of 1984, Winston Smith, specializes in getting rid of books and other information that Big Brother has banned.

Now let me make clear that I'm not a technophobe. I've been writing about technology since the days when e-mail was a big story. Ten years ago I tried out one of the first electronic readers, the Franklin Rocket eBook, which flopped though I thought it was pretty cool to stand in my back yard in pitch darkness, reading a novel thanks to the unit's backlight.

The Rocket never took off, but later eBooks kept improving and now we have the Kindle, the best one so far. Ten ounces, no thicker than a typical magazine, holds more than 1,500 books, instant downloads what's not to like?

So I come not to bury the Kindle, but to place my bet that this new content delivery system, and the even better ones to come, can peacefully co-exist with that much older content delivery system we call the book.

In fact, the Kindle and its successors will force us to rethink the very definition of a book, and help us realize that sometimes we want just the content, in whatever form, and sometimes we want a real book.

As a longtime book reviewer for the Dallas Morning News, I see dozens of books each month that I value only for their content. The typical how-to book, the myriad books on losing weight and gaining money I don't really care how these bundles of content are delivered. For these and for training manuals, some textbooks and the like, a wireless reader would be ideal.

But all readers know that sometimes, the medium is an important part of the message. You could drink a glorious wine from a rusty canteen but why would you want to? I think real books will be around for a long time to come, though perhaps in smaller numbers, because they have endearing qualities that will help them survive as more than museum curiosities.

For one thing, the old clich is true: books do furnish a room. They look great. I've never seen a house or a coffee table that didn't look better with books. They add color and shape and immediate interest; they give us a quick hint of who their owner is or hopes to be.

Books are also cultural touchstones, part of the timeline of our lives. Even cheap, lurid crime and Sci-fi paperbacks from the Forties and Fifties speak volumes about what people valued, what they desired and what they feared.

Books have an individual character, a tactile reality, a smell, a life span, that make them precious and loveable in ways no collection of bytes can be. They take up space, they react to moisture and heat and light. Mortal and tattered, they age along with us.

As much as I understand the Wow Factor of the Kindle, I can't imagine falling in love with it, or caring more about one particular download than another.

So I'm a bit more optimistic than the great Texas novelist Larry McMurtry, who recently said that he thought the era of physical books and bookstores would not last more than another generation. I hope he's wrong. One of the prizes in my collection is an autographed copy of McMurtry's novel Horseman, Pass By, which was made into the movie Hud with Paul Newman. It's the real thing. You can't push a button and make it go away.

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.