Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The book is dead, or soon will be

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One of the most ubiquitous presents under the Christmas tree this year is going to be some kind of digital computing device: an Xbox, iPad, perhaps Chapters Indigo's e-reader Kobo or the American bookseller Amazon's Kindle.

The Kobo was just one year old this week. The iPad came into existence earlier this year. eReaders, as they are known, have suddenly taken over the book-reading public. A shift that has been predicted for at least two decades is suddenly happening: People are at last truly moving from reading words printed on paper to words on a screen.

Remember those reading devices Captain Jean-Luc Picard looked at on Star Trek? They have become reality. I haven't usually been what marketing people call an early adopter. Usually, as new pieces of consumer technology have been developed, I've been in the second wave of users.

There are advantages in being in the second wave: prices have usually fallen and bugs have been ironed out.

With the iPad, though, it was different. I couldn't resist the idea of having nearly all the power of a desktop computer in a device smaller and lighter than the average book.

Once I started using it, I knew I was using digital equipment that would be the future for newspapers, magazines and books too. The same kind of revolution that had swept the music industry was about to sweep the world of literature.

The iPad, Kindle and Kobo provide you with a lifetime of reading almost in the palm of your hand, but only now am I beginning to realize what this will mean.

I'm pretty sure that within the fairly near future, these devices are going to replace nearly all paper-produced newspapers and magazines. I confess to not having yet made the switch, at least not completely. In particular, I am clinging to spreading the Sunday New York Times around the living room and catching stories here and there. I'm still reading the Free Press mostly in print, and other newspapers, too. But I feel I am clinging to a past that is rapidly receding.

I'm still reading books in traditional form, but less so. Why buy a book to read on an airplane when you can use the WiFi in an airport lounge to download the same book at half the weight? Why buy any weighty tome when you can have a library with you wherever you go?

Sure, I miss the feel of books, the pleasure of cracking them open, of looking at their covers, but surely this is all nostalgia? Here is the big problem. My partner and I bought a condo in a converted warehouse a couple of years ago. The first thing we did was build a floor-to-ceiling bookcase resplendent with copies of the philosophers Hobbes and Locke that I've owned since first-year university, the complete works of Chaucer in the original Middle English, endless popular hardbacks and a number of traditional and very useful reference works. There's also a shelf for CDs and DVDs.

It looks great. The books, CDs and DVDs provide colour and variety to the room but neither collection is likely to grow and, very soon, the whole bookcase is going to look as useless and antiquated as a cabinet full of vinyl record albums.

It's not just a principle of interior design that is changing. Think of what the shift to digital means to education. Schools will dispense with printed books. Libraries will become places to download digital copies. Traditional books will become the preserve of antiquarians.

Bookcases will go the way of the 1960s stereo-players that double as pieces of furniture and are now relegated to antique stores and the TV sets of the show Mad Men.

As an example of technological change, the demise of the traditional book seems to be more fundamental and in some ways more shocking than almost any other change that has swept the world in the past few decades.

One way or another, the printed book has been the way we have received knowledge for more than 500 years.

Our culture is built around it. Historians have collected famous people's papers. Universities, schools and institutions have housed centuries of learning in libraries. Newspaper and magazine publishers have kept bound copies of each year of their printed editions.

The presents under the Christmas tree are truly changing all of that. The move to digital reading may be easy to do, book by book, but the overall effect of the change may be monumental in ways we don't yet understand. To me, the move from print to iPad and Kindle seems different in kind from the move of music from CD to MP3 player or from film to video and it's not just because I'm not sure about the future use of our bookcase. It's because we are shifting the way the world's knowledge is stored.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2010 A11

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