Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ebooks: the Medium Isn't the Message

If you're from my pre-computer, pre-Internet generation, I understand how you feel.

You remember the day you were old enough to get an Adult Card at the public library. That card was a ticket to shelf after shelf, row after row, aisle after aisle of short stories, novels, history, science, biography--an unexplored universe of fiction, fantasy and facts. And at last, they were all yours.

Books. Real books. I know how you feel about them. Massive novels. Oversize picture books. Slim volumes of poetry. Elegant tomes bound in leather, with gilt-edged pages and glossy illustrations with quotes for captions. The bookshelf at home loaded with your own personal collection that goes waaaay back.

And then there's the process of reading a real book. You love the weight of a real book in your hands. The reassuring rigidity of the spine. (Books with backbone.) The soothing ritual of page-turning. The glacial flow of the bookmark, measuring your progress.

And I think I know how you feel about the new breed of books: ebooks. They seem ephemeral to you. Images on a screen. Pixels, not pictures. Percentages, not pages.

Are they convenient? Yes. Very easy to download. And less expensive, too. And you can compress a whole library into a package that weighs only a few ounces, and carry it with you wherever you go.

But still, you wonder, are ebooks really books?

As a member-in-good-standing of the pre-computer, pre-Internet generation, let me reassure my contemporaries--and my younger readers, as well. Whether a novel is written by hand in a notebook, serialized in a magazine, printed in a bound volume, or displayed on a screen--the novel is the same. The medium isn't the message. And it never was. The message is the message.

After all, when the first ancient authors created their stories, they didn't write them down. They recited them around campfires, or in the courts of kings. And they didn't speak in prose. They wrote poems, because the rhythms and rhymes of poetry make it easier to memorize, easier to remember. Is the Iliad or the Odyssey less of a masterpiece because it began as an oral tradition? Did anything change when they were finally written down?

And today, that ancient tradition has been revived when we listen to books on tape or CD being read aloud while we drive to work.

In short, whether a book is words on a page, or pixels on a screen, or decibels in the air--the message is the same. So don't worry about the medium. Just listen to the message and enjoy it.

And don't be surprised if someday in the future, the ebook becomes old hat, and a new format emerges. Just sit back, relax and keep listening to the message.

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