Downloading Dickens: Inevitable, or a Fantasy?

I just got the page proofs of my latest book, my eighth. Will it also be my last? Who will write the very last book in America?

Writing is an unkillable impulse. It is like second sight or a blood disease, a gift or a state beyond our control. Writing is older than writing, as the songs and stories of the illiterate attest, and will go on, in whatever should be the prevailing technology, as long as intelligence thinks in language. But the book, the bound collection of written or printed pages that has been the main vessel of writing for 1,500 years, may be on its last legs. So those who tout the e-book tell us.

Sony will be releasing an e-book in Japan in April. Sony promises, rather opaquely, that it will be “half” the size of a paperback book (which paperback—Atlas Shrugged, or The Prophet?), and that it will have memory capable of storing 20 books (same question). Sony is more definite about the price—$375—and claims to offer “a level of text clarity comparable to paper.” In other words, reading it won’t be like staring at a sidewalk A.T.M. in the blizzard of ’06.

This is an experiment; what better guinea pigs than the people who brought us manga? If it takes off, the price will drop and memory will balloon. The model for Sony and other potential e-bookmakers is the iPod, which, with computer downloading, has blasted away at the CD, even as CD’s and tapes overthrew the once-mighty record. Will the e-book take off?

New information technologies supplant old ones when they prevail in four areas: size, use, storage and purchase. The traditional book more than holds its own in the first two.

Books have already found the optimal size. “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,” John Adams told one of his sons—and that was two centuries ago, long before paperbacks. Big books push the limit; some readers of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy razored the tome into eight or 10 more portable sections. But one reason the book has had such a long run is that most books fit the hand.

Books also optimize the user’s experience. Computers allow us to mix and match the musical tracks we like, bringing us all into the paradise envisioned by wacky Glenn Gould, holed up in his studio, playing with his recorded takes and sampling a few bars of this and a few of that to create the perfect performance. Now anyone can do the same to his version of the Goldberg Variations, playing only the even-numbered pieces, or playing the whole thing backward. But books have always allowed readers to do this; their technological breakthrough, centuries before computing or even electricity, was the page. The page allows you to read over and over, to skip ahead or flip back, with no more effort than the flick of a finger. Even a Dark Ages chieftain might have felt awkward asking his bard to stop and recite the bit about Grendel’s mother again, but readers have been making comparable choices for ages.

When we come to storage and purchase, the e-book starts to make up ground. Sony’s e-book will store 20 books. I probably give away 20 books a month, what with reviewer’s copies and other freebies. But suppose all your “books” were on some master e-file, which your e-book could summon; and suppose, when you wished to buy new ones, you clicked onto the Amazon of the future and got a direct e-mail delivery. You would still have to pay for your “books,” or at least I hope you would; as an author, I depend on the self-interest of publishers to see to it that, pace the techno-zealots, my information will never want to be free. What we could very well be free from is bulk. Our shelves will be empty, and we will suck information and diversion from a disembodied pixel teat.

In sum, the e-book loses, or at best ties, any one-on-one competition with an existing traditional book. But when books are considered en masse, in libraries or even in multi-volume sets—encyclopedias, legal codes, the standard edition of Sigmund Freud, the complete Harry Potter—the e-book begins to look like a future that will happen, because it serves a need.

What would we lose in that future? The nature of browsing will change. E-browsing follows links, which, heaven knows, can be wacky enough: Put something like “Freemasonry” in your search engine and see what agendas, malice and general human craziness will produce. But those fortuitous discoveries that depended upon the alphabet-finding “bobolinks” on the way to “Bohemia”—or even wispier coincidences—will go the way of all paper. We may also miss the physical book as prompt and goad: Their spines, looking down at us, remind us of what we once read, or urge us to stop playing solitaire and plunge in. I have been having a struggle with The Egoist for 10 years. It sits in a conspicuous place, from which I have taken it twice, and given up both times after a hundred pages. One day, though, it will force me to prevail.

This is the affection we lavish on artifacts, even though we know that they are fleeting. Remember the LP, with its cover art and its liner notes? H.L. Mencken and Friedrich Nietzsche would have been brilliant writers of liner notes, had they only been born in the right century. But before LP’s, there was piano sheet music. I have from my mother, who had it from hers, a mournful dirge, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere,” sung, as the cover tells me, by the ladies of the Euterpean Quartet at the funeral of “our martyred president,” William McKinley. The ladies are pictured: One wears a pince-nez like Teddy Roosevelt; another is quite lovely. They are all as gone now as McKinley.

McKinley was shot in 1901, only a chapter ago in the history of the book. I hope, without total confidence, that there are many more chapters still to come.