Eric Weiner, a former reporter for NPR, is author of "The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World."
The other day I was in a cafe when I noticed a woman reading on a Kindle, Amazon's clunky, oddly quaint e-reader. "Do you like it?" I asked. "Yes," she said, beaming. "It's great. I can travel with 200 books, a library at my fingertips." Being an insecure author (is there any other kind?), I asked if my book happened, just happened, to be among those lucky 200. She punched a few keys on her Kindle, and up popped my book. Well, not my book exactly, but the same words that appear in my book. There's a difference. The printed word has a permanence, a finality to it that digital "ink" lacks. Digital words are provisional, always subject to change. Call me Ishmael. No, call me ... Brad. Yes, that's much better.
Much of the talk about e-books has focused either on technical issues or questions of pricing, but that misses the point. The technology will improve, especially now that Apple is in the game. And I'm confident that I'll still get my fair share from each e-book sold. But as an author, I'm not after your money. Well, not only your money. I have my sights on a much more precious commodity: your time. We enter into an unspoken pact, you and I: Give me a few hours, stolen moments on the subway or after the kids are asleep, and I promise to inform and entertain you. Frankly, that's always been a tough sell, given the sundry ways you can spend your time, but at least I had a fighting chance. Curled up with a pinot noir and my book, your attention was mine to lose. Not anymore. The new generation of e-books will, in essence, merge the laptop and the book. Now if my narrative starts to drag, or I digress, readers can click onto their favorite news site to see what's up with health care, or click onto TMZ to see what's up with Brangelina. How do I compete with that?
I realize that, no, you can't stop progress. And, yes, I suppose I could take the I-don't-care-how-they-read-me-as long-as-they-read-me approach. But that would be naive. Technologies are not neutral. They come with a bias. Not a political bias — a narrative bias. A news story broadcast on television, an acutely visual medium, is different from the same story published in a newspaper or broadcast on radio. Form is function. Someone reading a book on a Kindle has a fundamentally different experience from someone reading the same book the old-fashioned way.
The fact is that books are special. Why else are we so careful not to bend their spines? Why else do we grant them honored space in our living rooms, our bedrooms? I can't see people expressing the same reverence for the flashing bits of data that flicker across their e-books (and don't even get me started on what this means for book signings). Yes, it's wonderful to have a library at our fingertips. But the digital library is a noisy, crowded place, filled with sports stars and politicians and celebrities. I'm afraid the reader might not even notice I'm there.