Amazon US announced this week that, for the first time, sales of e-books for their Kindle reader outstripped hardback sales.
This news is seen as heralding the end of the book as we know it. This maybe so. The convenience of electronic text is undeniable: thousands of pages stored in a small space, the ease of moving, clipping, copying, searching, referencing, sharing text and reaching a wider readership. Governor Schwarzenegger is already terminating printed textbooks for Californian schoolchildren. It is generally agreed that what happens in California today will happen in the rest of the world tomorrow. What will be left of our civilization in a thousand years? A few chips?
But don't believe this is the end of the book. It's not just that hardbacks are not the only book. We've heard, over the years, similar proclamations. Cinema was to end theatre. Radio was to kill newspapers. Television was to finish off radio, cinema and, yes, theatre. The old and the new have a way of balancing one against the other, and each finds a new place.
Now the internet is suppposedly set to take over all of them - tv, radio, cinema, theatre – and the book in particular. But will it?
Books can reach places that the internet cannot.
Here's a list of the top 10 things you CAN'T do with a book on a Kindle or an iPad. OK, a few can be electronically simulated, but it's not the same thing. The physical reminders of what you or someone else were doing when reading the book, with all the emotions they evoke, can't be computerised.
1. Drop in the bath while reading and falling asleep. (Or have they made it waterproof already?)
2. Swat flies and mosquitoes. Optional: hit a classmate.
3. Press flowers/leaves between the pages. Optional: dead insects, i.e. butterflies.
4. Bend corners or fold an entire page. Optional: tear out end-pages to write a note or make an origami.
5. Make fingernail marks on pages. Optional: pencil or fountain pen marks, soon smudged and illegible.
6. Leave marmite, bovril, vegemite, peanut butter, sun-tan oil, lipstick, KFC or Haagen-Dazs smudges. (underline as required)
7. Drop cigarette ashes in between pages.
8. Leave coffee-mug, tea cup, wine or beer glass stains - an important indicator of our cultural heritage.
9. Write your name on the flyleaf, dedicate it to a loved one or have it signed by the author. What will become of book-signings?
10. Stamp with bookplate (ex libris.) Collect books with bookplates. What's the point?
11. Wear most read pages. I have a Bible with very worn Song of Songs.
12. Repair dust jackets, throw away dust jackets, collect dust jackets, sell old dust jackets.
13. Admire rows of spines on a bookshelf, or impress people with the number of books you have [read]. Have you noticed how various gurus/preachers love to sit in front of shelves heaving with rows of richly printed folios? What will they do now? have a little plastic box behind them?
14. Rip out pages, cut and paste, make kites out of atlases or paper dolls with clip-on clothes cut out from mum's fashions book. Poor children of the future, they'll never know such fun!
15. Dust and clean books – or let them collect dust.
16. Smell the paper and ink of a newly bought book.
17. Show off a hardback to someone who only has a paperback.
18. Open several books at a time and arrange them on your desk to show how much work you have to do, and that you are too busy to cook/take out the rubbish/play with the kids.
19. Use for chatting up girls, or to impress boys. You can wave around a Kindle or an iPad but they won't know what you are reading. And on the tube, at the beach or swimming pool, or when visiting someone for the first time, how can you tell what the person is really like if you can't see their books (or lack of?)
21. Sell at a car-boot sale (yard sale, vide grenier).
22. Burn books you don't like. How does a fatwa or a Vatican disaproval work against an ebook? Set holy warriors to infest every file with bugs? Will '451º Fahrenheit' soon need as much commentary as the clay tablets of Ninevia?
23. And finally, the libraries. It's more or less clear how you can take out an ebook from the library. But how do you then return it? or, more excitingly, not return it? You can't queue for a popular book or magazine, go on a waiting list or just hang out and discuss books with other ticket-holders. Ok, you can chat with other book lovers, for instance on LibraryThing.com, but virtual 'hanging out' is not the same, or is it?
24. Puppies can't chew ebooks. Not exactly what you can't do, but certainly a part of book lore.
Imagine if the nazis only had Kindles and iPads. What would they have burned?
Sorry, I said 'top 10 things', but in fact there are 24. If you have more suggestions, send them in, please.
PS: if you are not a Russian speaker, although many of my readers are, please be warned that ebook (ебук или ибук) in Russian sounds very much like a popular invective (the f~ word).