Bill Hill, a researcher for Microsoft who knows what resistance there is to electronic books, points out their appeal to the ecologically conscious because the paper-and-ink process is "energy-wasting" and "resource-draining." Why chop down all those trees, to mash them into pulp for feeding noisy machines with mere paper? But it's unlikely that environmentalists will campaign to save the traditional book reader. We have none of the cachet of the snail darter.
Like it or not, the habit of reading is about to be revolutionized. A reader-friendly electronic device called Amazon Kindle might well do for books what the Internet has done for music and videos. Kindle is independent of the computer and uses wireless connections akin to those used by cell phone carriers rather than Wi-Fi hot spots. The delivery service is free. "The vision is that you should be able to get any book -- not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print -- on this device in less than a minute," Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, tells Newsweek magazine. "The baby boomers have a love affair with paper. But the next-gen people, in their 20s and below, do everything on a screen."
Traditionalists (like me) react with skepticism and fear of the sort that the monks must have felt, watching their beautiful manuscripts, with the illustrations meticulously done by hand, replaced by the printing press, staining pages with messy black smudges. But once such devices cost considerably less than the Kindle at $399 -- which is sure to come -- the Luddites among us will see there's no turning away from the future. We can envision and encourage a reading revival. The Kindle catalog contains 90,000 books, including many best-sellers, and sell for less than half the cover price at the chain bookstores. Classics cost even less.
Entire libraries are being digitalized, with information organized by categories, making it easier to find authors related to each other by theme, genre and historical era. Instead of asking the question, "To read or not to read?" we'll read new meaning into Miranda's speech in "The Tempest" (only two clicks away):
"How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
"That has such people in't!"