A lot of the reaction to any new technology is simply that many of us invested a lot of effort in learning how to use the old technology well. That's especially true of books. (It's no accident that so many of the complaints come from journalists, academics, and other writers). For years, in school and at work, we constructed increasingly elaborate personal reference systems from notes, flags, and dog-ears, and our brains are now very nimble at using them. Change is hard. Moreover, it involves recognizing that all of our previous effort was a sunk cost: we have a painfully acquired skill that is now useless. We'd much rather double down than move on.
An incisive point. I really do need to ask how much of my resistance and discomfort — when I feel those, which is not always — are just the inevitable result of old and deeply-ingrained habits.
But while I’m asking, I want to question the chief analogy of the post:
- Books : E-readers :: Horses : Automobiles
But I don't think the analogy is quite right. What’s the task at which horses and automobiles can be said to compete? Presumably, it’s transporting people or things from one point to another as quickly and reliably as possible. (When speed is not required, but rather peace and quiet, a horse may well be superior to a car, and walking superior to either.) What’s the task at which codex books and e-readers can be said to compete? Ummmm . . . .
See, that’s the tricky question. It depends on what you’re reading and why you’re reading it. If I’m reading a novel just for fun, I’d say the e-reader does a better job; if I’m reading a seriously literary novel for study, or am discussing such a book with a class, then I think the codex is far superior. And — I’m trying to formulate an abstract point here that’s still not perfectly clear in my own mind — when I’m reading a book whose key ideas are organized around the recurrence of certain words, I like e-readers better because they’re easy to search; but some books (especially novels) organize their central themes not around repetitions of words but rather repetitions of images or thoughts or events, and e-books are not well suited to investigating that variety of coherence.
Perhaps the e-reading technologies will improve and lessen the gap; probably they will. But what I want to avoid is the temptation to stop thinking in certain ways, stop striving for certain forms of understanding, because the technology I’m employing doesn’t favor them.