The Grumpy Old Catechist on E-Books

For all my love of technology, I’m still a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to e-books. I’m simply not convinced that the convenience of being able to carry around a library in your backpack offsets what I see as some very real and core problems with the technology.

As I’ve refined my thoughts on the subject I continue to have two problems with e-books: one philosophical, one technological.

My philosophical problem stems from the fact that, as highly editable constructs, e-books enable the kind of post-publication tinkering that now plagues movie-making. Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien or Aldous Huxley had been able to go back and “re-edit” their greatest works (ala  George Lucas and the Star Wars special editions) and instantly  propagate  those changes to every copy in the world.  Or imagine if others could make those changes on behalf of authors long dead, ala  the colorization of black and white films that was popular not so long ago. That’s the type of skulduggery that electronic publishing makes possible.

Even more ominously, imagine if a special interest group or government action convinced a publisher to make edits to a text. It’s not too hard to imagine edits made to such traditionally controversial texts such as Huckleberry Finn  or Catcher in the Rye. If all that is available are electronic texts, who will preserve the original words of the authors? Who will be able to oppose such censorship when it is built into the underlying technology itself?

(And if you think it isn’t possible, remember that  Amazon was able to pull copies of  1984  from Kindles  not so long ago; it’s a short step to selectively editing copies on the same devices.)

On the technological end, the science fiction nut in me just keeps picturing a post-apocalyptic world in which access to technology is limited and only those people in possession of real physical books will have access to the world’s knowledge. Good examples of what I’m talking about are A Canticle for Leibowitz, the underrated  The Book of Eli,  or the classic Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”:

In a modern retelling, we can well imagine Burgess Meredith dropping his iPad and unable to access all the books he ever wanted to read.

Of course, part of me is playing the curmudgeon. Point in fact, I think e-books are well suited for students, for whom lugging around backpacks filled with heavy textbooks poses real logistical and, potentially, health problems. And I think e-books may be an ideal solution for smaller niche publications which are not economically feasible under a print economy. But even then I think a print-on-demand solution should be offered, so that a physical, non-editable copy can be kept for posterity. Print is not dead, no matter how much our technological overlords may wish it to be so, and physical books still represent a lasting way to preserve what we hope to pass on to future generations.


  1. Wow, take that ebooks! Funny, I was actually thinking of post-apocalypticu00a0Fahrenheitu00a0451 while reading your post, not the Twilight Zone. At the end of the book (spoiler alert) the many characters go by names that correspond to titles of books they have memorized. Burn the books, but the ideas will survive!u00a0nnI’ll address the Star Wars Special Edition for books issue first. (Note, I despise the special edition and loath the fact that it is so hard to get the original on DVD.) Not that devious publishers can’t hide this, but eBooks have separate eISBNs from their print books. So we should think of them as separate products. Any enhanced eBooks would also have ISBNs that differentiate it from the print version or non-enhanced eBook version. If any more than 20% of the text of a book is changed, then a new ISBN needs to be assigned to print books and their corresponding digital versions (this is why a revised edition is only truly revised when 20% is changed and a new ISBN is assigned). SO…publishers won’t make changes without changing the product (maybe not the title).u00a0nnRe: Huckleberry Finn: I think something similar happened to the Bible, by the way, when the printing press came out and it was translated into vernacular languages. We had many different Bibles that disagreed on translation and the translators were even using different primary sources to create their new versions. An idea, though written down on paper (or in a file) is still an idea that is alive in our minds, collective or individual. Books are exceptional ways of sharing ideas over an extended period of time and to a large group of people.u00a0

    • (Geek shame confession: I’ve never read Fahrenheit 451, which is why I didn’t include it in my dystopian listing!)u00a0nn”If any more than 20% of the text of a book is changed, then a new ISBN needs to be assigned.”nnI didn’t know that; that makes me feel a little better about that situation.u00a0Still, I can picture scenarios in which an oppressive regime could use the underlying infrastructure to eliminate inconvenient facts or even insert outright propaganda into textbooks or other books. As I mentioned to someone on Twitter, is makes convincing everyone that “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia” that much easier.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think some of the problems you mention are more a symptom of DRM and central control of ebooks, rather than of ebooks themselves. I doubt, for example, that you have the same concern over digitized music. Digital music–at least at the present–resides for the most part on people’s own computers. Cloud services are changing that, but I don’t think people fear that Apple is going to surreptitiously replace their copy of “Dust in the Wind” with a remix.n

    • Good point, Nick. I’m definitely griping about ebooks as they exist right now, and my concerns definitely spill over into the move toward cloud services.nnI’d love to see ebooks shed DRM, just as digital music has done. But that assumes a common open format will emerge; if Apple’s textbook announcement is any indication, I think we’re some time away from that.

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