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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

In His Hand

In the 1970s, I used to frequent the neighborhood Brentano's Bookstore, located in the Village at 20 University Place and Eighth Street. On one occasion, I met a man who astounded me - he read entire books in one afternoon while standing or slowly ambulating in the shop. I doubt he was reading the likes of Ulysses, but this was still particularly remarkable, not just in the reading feat itself, but also given the nature of bookstores at the time. Even though bookshops have historically been liberal in their reading policies, it still was not a time with bookstore's cafes, various seating areas or where one could find customers researching while virtually camping out on the floors and tolerated by the management. And, apart from libraries, it was not a world of free content, just a few keystrokes away.

Ebook readers have been around for much longer than many might imagine* - since 1998, with early pioneers in portable eBook readers like the eBookman by Franklin and the Rocket eBook. I was given one of these devices over ten years ago. It sat unused. Issues of content, moving files in and out, lack of wireless Internet, low contrast screens and other technical shortcomings of the devices all conspired against the wholesale adoption of ebooks and readers. But ebooks appear to be ready for prime time fueled by the eInk technology with its high contrast paperlike readability, lightweight devices, low power requirements and Internet integration. Devices like the Barnes and Noble Nook, the Amazon Kindle and Apple's iPad are selling well and can be seen throughout the city.

In my own business here in New York City, we publish a small selection of highly specialized books. With some titles, this necessitates inventorying print runs for years. Recently, we made the big decision to go digital with some of our titles. One of our first candidates was Circus Techniques by Hovey Burgess (you can read about him in Fish and Ponds). We dragged out a copy of the printed book from my library as well as the original film flats, all shown in the photo - this is how printers worked and prepared books for offset printing. After evaluation, we decided that it would be easier to OCR scan the entire text, so the flats are back in storage, a relic of a time gone by.

New York is book country and arguably the epicenter of publishing in the United States. I doubt printed books, magazines and newspapers are going to diminish as quickly as did music CDs or bookstores disappear like CD merchants did. The development of electronic media is, however, sure to impact New York. Recently, Barnes and Noble announced the closing of their massive store near Lincoln Center. The company itself is for sale.

I'd love to meet that reader from Brentano's now. Although the end of an era is close at hand, I am sure he would be overjoyed with an eReader and a few thousand titles in his hand :)

*The earliest digitization of a document was that of the United States Declaration of Independence by Michael Hart in 1971, then a student at the University of Illinois who had obtained access to a Xerox Sigma V mainframe computer in the university's Materials Research Lab. Hart then went on to establish Project Gutenberg, a voluntary effort, now with over 33,000 titles available free, primarily public domain books.


Mary P. said...

Just now had cataract surgery in one eye. Could not have imagined reading an entire book from an electronic screen. Now, just 4 hours later, I can see how it is possible. Everything is so much brighter, with better contrast. (Your white on black text looks much better too.)What a miracle!

Beth in NYC said...

I can see eReaders being convenient, particularly their portability, but I will always prefer to read a real book. A small clarification on your essay - the B&N that's closing is in Lincoln Square as opposed to Columbus Circle (such a bummer). I don't think the Borders in the Time Warner Center is going anywhere, at least for now.

Randy said...

I would love to do a bookstore tour of NY!

Anonymous said...

I love all the stories in your blog, they are great.

Kenon Thompson said...

Just from a personal (non-arguable and conflictive) statement, for some reason I just love the feel of reading a book in print through a book instead of through say an "Kindle" or what not. Of course I believe the idea is great through technology. I guess this is one subject I will always remain "old school" to! :)