I still like a book. I haven’t been won over to e-reading yet but I’ve no doubt the day will come when I will, just as I retired my typewriter, my super 8 movie camera, and my Olympus stills camera when it became self-evident that I was sticking with them for the wrong reasons.
Stay with me, there’s a lesson here.
My Olympus was a replacement for a super-slim 35mm pocket Ricoh that was stolen from my jacket on a location in the 90s. The Ricoh was a thing of beauty, aesthetically the nicest camera I’ve ever owned. The insurance company wouldn’t reimburse me the value, but insisted that I go to a local camera store and get the manager to give me a written estimate for its current equivalent. They’d pay the store and I’d get a new camera.
Which is how I came to be stuck with Kodak’s crappy ‘APS system’, which did more than anything else to push me forward into digital picture-making. APS was a desperate attempt to dress an old technology in new clothes. That it was doomed from the start was obvious to everyone except Kodak.
Actually, I’m pretty sure that Kodak must have known it too, but were forced by their heavy investment in film to go through the motions. APS required a new design of camera to take a new design of film cassette, which required specialised processing. Every stage of the system was expensive, it was laden with unnecessary bells and whistles, and with a negative area that was only 56% of a 35mm frame it gave inferior picture quality.
It seems to me that this kind of undignified tarting-up happens with every good but soon-to-be-outmoded technology. Anyone remember Polaroid’s Polavision, the self-processing Super 8 cassette? The ‘electronic typewriter’, where you typed onto paper but it remembered your keystrokes and corrections and then typed it all out again? Super-VHS?
Now there’s the Espresso Book Machine (link courtesy of the Writers’ Guild blog). It’s that long-anticipated device, a machine in a bookstore that prints your selection on the spot. I wish them well in their business but I can’t help feeling that a familiar pattern is being played out all over again.
It’s a seductive idea; old-fashioned books produced with the newest of new technology. There was a time when I saw print-on-demand as the way forward in preserving and making available every author’s backlist, but I’m growing away from it. I love books as physical objects but a generic chunk of paper print does nothing for me at all. If a POD book has no more character than an e-book, then the e-book wins.
Outmoded technologies don’t lose all value just because they no longer command the mass market. People still shoot Super 8 but for its specific aesthetic, not because it’s their only option. Photographer and portraitist Lisa Bowerman uses film stock and natural light to luminous effect, then handles the images digitally. There’s still a part of my heart that lusts after a classic 35mm Leica even though I know I’d get very little use from it… though it would still be way more relevant than my Olympus APS camera, which is basically hi-tech landfill.
There’ll still be books, I reckon, but only those that give you something to care about. Otherwise it’ll be a universe of reading material at your fingertips.
I’m not saying I like it… I just think that’s the way it’s going to be.