bioephemera

Have e-books killed tree-books?

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Have e-books killed tree-books? I hope not – I love hefting a brand-new book in my hand and letting the pages fan open. It’s sensual and anticipation-laden, like opening a bottle of good wine. But perhaps science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer is hedging his bets on the future of paper books: he’s released his latest collection, Brain Cuttings, exclusively for Kindle, iPad, and other mobile devices. I clicked over to read an excerpt, and this was the first passage I saw:

Let’s say you transfer your mind into a computer–not all at once but gradually, having electrodes inserted into your brain and then wirelessly outsourcing your faculties. Someone reroutes your vision through cameras. Some one stores your memories on a net of microprocessors. Step by step your metamorphosis continues until at last the transfer is complete. As engineers get to work boosting the performance of your electronic mind so you can now think as a god, a nurse heaves your fleshy brain into a bag of medical waste. As you–for now let’s just call it “you”–start a new chapter of existence exclusively within a machine, an existence that will last as long as there are server farms and hard-disk space and the solar power to run them, are “you” still actually you?

This question was being considered carefully and thoroughly by a 43-year-old man standing on a giant stage backed by high black curtains. He had the bedraggled hair and beard of a Reagan-era metalhead. He wore a black leather coat and an orange-and-red T-shirt covered in stretched-out figures from a Stone Age cave painting.

He was not, in fact, insane.

Yup, Carl has computers on the brain. (and/or that awesome episode of X-Files, “Kill Switch,” the one with Esther the grrrl hacker and . . . never mind.)

Let me be honest: not only do I not want my brain in a digital storage vault, I don’t want my books in there, either. I know my tendency to devalue e-books relative to tree-books is probably irrational, even if others share it. I know the value of Carl’s words shouldn’t change much from blog to e-book to physical book. It’s mainly that I’m accustomed to the experience of a physical book. And while old-fashioned paper is admittedly ephemeral, e-texts are ephemeral in other unsettling ways, and not just because they appear transiently on your monitor, or because Amazon can pluck them remotely out of your hands. Digital files may last longer than pulped wood or animal skin parchment, but access to them is contingent on possessing the right technology. Somewhere, I still have a video game from my first computer, a TRS-80. The game is on a cassette tape. Seriously. No, I won’t be playing Pyramid anytime soon. I’m sure you, too, have files locked away in outdated technology – not impossible to retrieve and port to a new system, but not really worth the inconvenience, either.

I hate that I can’t “get to” the books I have in storage on the other side of the country, but at least I have confidence that I’ll eventually, someday, unpack them and flip through their pages again. But if I buy an e-book reader and fill it with new e-books, will my new e-library go the way of my cassette tapes and my VHS movies? (Time Bandits! The original Tron!) What if some digital bookworm eats my library? What if we’re hit by a massive alien EMP, or Apple and Amazon go bankrupt and I (naturally) refuse to buy a PC? How will I read my e-books then? Call me a Luddite, but what does it mean to collect or curate books or movies, when they’re only snippets of code?

According to my boyfriend – who is nothing if not calm and rational – it means A) convenience, B) instant gratification, C) less clutter, and D) e-paper that doesn’t make him sneeze. According to Carl Zimmer, it means a new niche, and perhaps a new audience. But I still say everything is ephemeral – just in different ways than we’re used to.

Check out Carl Zimmer’s Brain Cuttings at his website or at Amazon.