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FIELDS: Battle of the books

E-books are lightweight, but do today’s titles enlighten?

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"We're going to seduce them with our square footage, and our discounts, and our deep armchairs, and our cappuccino. They're going hate us at the beginning. ... But we'll get 'em in the end because we're going to sell them cheap books and legal addictive stimulants. We'll just put up a big sign: 'Coming soon: a FoxBooks superstore and the end of civilization as you know it.' "

Such were the sentiments of the 1998 movie comedy "You've Got Mail," spoken by Joe Fox (portrayed by Tom Hanks) articulating the strategy of a big chain bookstore. FoxBooks was a fictional representation of Barnes & Noble, the biggest of the big book chains, which at last count had 720 big stores and 637 college bookstores. The movie was made in 1998, after the superchains had been on the move for more than a decade, bulldozers scooping up every small independent bookstore in their path.

Many of us lament the loss of the neighborhood bookstore, where we enjoyed engaging the owner in conversation, but losing that was a small price (if not so small for the bookshop proprietor) to pay for the luxury of more impersonal service for less money. We still inhabited the Age of Gutenberg, where the printed word on paper was dear to both head and heart and where we could buy the morning newspaper and a magazine. Soon we carried our laptops into their coffee cafes, too.

Now Barnes & Noble is up for sale, and Amazon.com is seducing us with the Kindle (without coffee) and we have to wait at least two weeks if we want to buy an Apple iPad, with free or cheap "apps" to deliver just about everything but the cappuccino.

I spent a few summer days at the beach reading books on a borrowed Kindle. I had to be dragged to the small screen, but when I visited an urban bookstore a few days later to browse, I discovered that I preferred the novels as e-books, to read them at half the price of paper-and-ink books. I could easily change the size of the type, and the package was smaller and lighter than any novel I could carry in a shopping bag.

While the technology required mentoring from a 14-year-old, I imagined that I was staying in touch with the future. I waxed nostalgic over a memory of my mother telling me how as a young girl in a small town in Canada, hers was the first family to get a telephone. When her daddy called, she puzzled over how he could make himself tiny enough to fit into the phone box on the wall. I never thought the generation gap in my lifetime would be that dramatic, but the generation after mine makes it clear that help is required for old folks challenged by electronics.

The e-book certainly represents the accelerating future. Amazon sells more e-books than books on paper. Most (but not all) of my fellow troglodyte friends are buying them for travel because "of the lighter weight only." But from small acorns great oaks grow. Luxury hotels are adding e-books as a perk along with spas and gourmet vegetarian dishes.

After Gutenberg invented movable type, replacing illuminated manuscripts inscribed by monks, the production of cheap books followed, but hundreds of years later. Those books typically were published in small quantities on corkscrew hand presses, with the pages folded, stitched and bound by hand. The Industrial Revolution eventually begot the high-tech revolution for mass-produced books, and production took off in the 19th century. Critics then fretted over the harmful changes in reading patterns and feared a decline in the quality of writing and reading, just as we worry today over short attention spans spawned in a digital age. (But before we celebrate our own era with shouts and fireworks, we should take note that the quality of contemporary reading and writing often suffers by comparison to earlier times.)

As early as 1704, Jonathan Swift satirized a "battle of the books" in the duel for prominence in the King's Library between classical authors such as Homer and Aristotle, whom Swift considered the sources of light, and the popular modernists, who merely reflected light. He leaves it to the reader to decide the winner.

It's much too early to measure the full impact of e-reading on the way we "process" ideas. Denis Diderot, famous for the encyclopedia he edited in the 18th century, was skeptical of the benefits of technological progress and wondered who ultimately would be the master of content - the reader or the writer. That question remains to be answered - maybe on paper and maybe on the tiny screen.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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