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.