ebooks and the end of civilization as we know it

I was sitting on the porch of my cabin in the woods.

Reading Walden.

On my iPad.

I wonder what Henry David Thoreau would think of an ebook reader. While I think he was a resourceful and practical man, which is to say I don’t think he would reject technology outright, I suspect he would have little use for an ebook reader as long as dead-tree versions of books were equally available. (In Walden he comments about how a visitor to his cabin, upon finding he was not there, left him a note, written on a leaf. You can’t get much more close to a literal dead-tree communication than that.)

The iPad is a new addition to our household, and Walden was the first book I downloaded to it, while waiting for our food to be served in a cafe that had free wifi. It is easy enough to read from, and the scalable fonts of the display allow for personal adjustments for preferences. Plus, when you’re in a cabin in the woods without any electricity for reading lamps, the lighted display allows you to read into the night when most other activities must cease. No doubt there are other marvels to the reader function that I have yet to discover (or better stated, that I have yet to have explained to me).

In contrast, while I have dropped many books without mishap, I doubt I will be able to do the same with the iPad. Nor have I ever had to worry about the battery life of a typical paperback. And if I’m reading a book I especially dislike, I am free to throw it across the room if the urge strikes. (This has never happened.) I would dare not consider indulging the urge with the iPad.

Yet it is nice to be able to look up the definition of a word I come across that is unfamiliar (which is common in Thoreau’s 19th Century writing) even when I’m at a cabin in the woods, and on the iPad, I can take myself to the internet for quick research if I care to with only a few taps on the screen (though not while I’m at a cabin in the woods unless it has wifi, which my cabin does not).

Still, in the rush toward technology, I wonder what will be left behind. It’s the kind of question I think Thoreau would ask. So far, I have only looked for books using Apple’s online store, so I may be pleasantly surprised as my forays expand, but only one Iris Murdoch novel is currently available, and I found no Philip Roth novels. Sure, they’re probably out there through some other vendor, and it may be possible that I can download them from the public library (though at this point there seems to be an interface problem or a format problem or something that’s keeping me from getting library books).

The dead-tree version book I am currently reading is The Equire Reader, which is an anthology of short stories that appeared in Esquire Magazine in the 1950s. Many prominent names are represented, and it was the inclusion of the Philip Roth short story “Expect the Vandals” that caused me to pick up the book to begin with.

Will this work ever be available in ebook format? And what of lesser names? I spend a lot of my free time prowling used bookstores. Among the thousands of musty books in these musty places are novels written by people who never became famous. Their works are largely forgotten, and the few dozen remaining copies of their works in such bookstores around the country are really their last stand. Once those are gone, the works very likely can never be resurrected. As we march toward our bright, electronic publishing future, works like these are unlikely to be included. Sure, you say, these writers had their shots, and they didn’t survive. Still, it was decades after Melville’s death before his novels began to acquire the academic and literary respect that grows even today. In the ebook universe, there are plenty of novels that would be better forgotten (I’ll leave you to name your favorites), but as we transition from paper to tablet, I suspect that there will be many books that will be forgotten that ought not to be.

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