In Defense of E-ink and Plain Old Words

At The Loop, Matt Alexander predicts the coming demise of e-ink-based readers. His contention, which may be right, is that the rapid evolution and decreasing prices of tablets will render “electronic paper” to sub-niche status. I can believe that if what we now know of as tablets become so crisp and readable for long durations, then yes, e-ink will no longer have much of a purpose.

But here’s where I disagree. Alexander writes:

While I’d say there is much evolution to come for magazines, the e-book, above all others, is overdue for modernization. I love my Kindle Touch for what it is, but it does little to take the concept of the printed word and evolve it. The e-ink display serves its purpose well, but as the concept of the printed word evolves, so too must the technology around it.

I don’t think this is quite right, because I think if anything, the rise of the Kindle has proven that there remains a great desire in the culture and in the market for long-form reading, reading in the form of what we know of as books. And traditional books need no additional bells and whistles.

As much as some kind of “enhancement” for books is predicted by many in the tech blogosphere, I think the novel, the short story, and most nonfiction is best suited to be presented as clearly readable text, and almost nothing else.

Books, on the whole, don’t need a bevy of video easter eggs or audio atmosphere or anything like that. Linking to a dictionary or encyclopedia to look up unfamiliar terms? Great, and e-ink does it. A way to make notes and highlights? Done. Better ways to navigate indexes or to recall characters or ideas? Kindle’s “X-Ray” feature is just the first step in that. There’s almost nothing else one would even want to have added to that mix. (And I should note that Alexander himself is a huge proponent of the latest e-ink Kindle.)

This is not to say that the book or the printed word must not or need not evolve. It’s wonderful to think of what new media may arise with these emerging technologies. But they will rise alongside traditional forms. They will share, at it were, shelf space with our newly-digitized old-school books. And that’s great.

So for these reasons I think e-ink has a longer life ahead of it than Alexander gives it credit for. It may be that more “tablety” displays reach a point of convergence at which e-ink is no longer necessary, but that won’t be because of some enormous shift in what “book” means.

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