Apparently, no matter how much swearing and girl-girl kissing they allow on television, some of you fancy lads insist on continuing to read books. In rejoinder, I offer an anecdote from my youth.
I used to love books myself, until the fateful day when my father showed up with two knives and two women. "It's knives and women for you from now on," he said, giving me one of each. "Books have nothing to teach you. When you were a child, you spake as a child. But now that you've become a man, it's time to put away childish things."
"Uh, where did you learn that saying?" I asked him.
He turned his girl around. "It was carved on this woman's back with a knife."
And I couldn't argue with that, especially because his knife was a lot bigger than mine. But some of you probably would, because you love contemplating the future of your darling books, and weeping and gnashing your teeth and donning sackcloth over it. Well, I'm here to put your worries to rest with my precognitive powers. And yes, I am serious about just about everything that follows, and once history has proven me correct, you will all have to respect me and James Randi will owe me one million dollars.
All right, so, the problem as I see it-or the alleged problem, anyway-is a combination of the fact that people aren't reading and that ebooks aren't catching on.
But I submit to you that neither of these things is true! First, it may indeed be the case (and almost certainly is) that people are consuming more television, movies, and video games than literature. But it is difficult indeed to believe that no one cares about books if you have ever tried to find a place to sit down at your local Barnes & Noble, particularly on a Saturday afternoon. In my experience, lots of people enjoy books, and they all snag the good chairs before I do, no matter how early I get there.
As for ebooks, it's true that the Kindle and its kin have not become killer apps on the scale of their cousins, the BlackBerry and iPod and even the Nintendo DS. And this is problem a result of the fact that they still cost one million dollars, coupled with the tiresome refrain that book lovers have to join in on every time the subject of ebooks comes up, about how they "just love holding a real, physical object" and "the feel of the pages crinkling between their fingertips" and "you can't hide nudie pictures in a Kindle as easily" and "it's harder to start a fire with one, too, despite the name."
To which I reply that we once said the same thing about CDs and videotapes and the floppy drives in our Macs and horses ("Oooh, daddy, I'll never ride in a motor-car! I love Chestnut too much! His big, strong flanks, and his soft brown hair, and his sad eyes-I'll never stop riding Chestnut, daddy! Never!"). And now some people do still use CDs and videotapes and horses and maybe even floppy drives, just as some people will continue to use real books-but they're in the minority, as I imagine real-book users will eventually be, too.
And I don't think it's necessarily going to be the Kindle that does it, although I think it's undeniably serving a purpose by pushing e-reader technology forward. More likely-barring some Singularity-type development that frees us from having to use any kind of physical artifact at all-is that as we continue to move rapidly toward portable computing, we're going to see increasing convergence between BlackBerries and iPods and DSes and Kindles, so that whatever the brand of the device you're carrying, it serves as your phone, your email client, your media player, your gaming device, and your e-reader.
A consequence of this, and of the present collapse we're seeing of our old-media institutions-in particular, print journalism-is that someone is going to finally find a profitable way to deliver quality writing over the Internet.
It's been almost taken for granted for the last fifteen years, since the Internet took off, that you can't make substantial money off of online writing because there's too much out there available for free. But I am pretty sure all that "free" content has actually been provided on the backs of still-functioning old-media businesses-e.g., the AP and Reuters are still around to provide the news you read for free on Google because they're still selling subscriptions to newspapers.
Once those newspapers can't afford those subscriptions, though, what happens to the AP and that news you're reading for free? Same goes for the blogs you read for free now-the bloggers performing the best independent work are doing so because they're being paid by print institutions like The Atlantic. The content of a lot of other blogs, like our own dear io9 and the rest of Gawker Media, is in part independent but also largely composed of posts inspired by newspaper and magazine articles. I don't know the numbers, but while io9's editors certainly have the ability to act as firsthand newsgatherers, I suspect they don't have the budget and time to do that.
So what's going to happen? I can tell you one thing: If old-media businesses can't provide online content anymore, we're not going to stop wanting that content. We're deeply addicted to it now, and that need is not going to be served by funny cat pictures and Cosby Show bloopers alone. Necessity is invention's mom, and we're going to invent a way to pay to read things online, on our handheld KindlePods. We won't have to pay much, either, given the large number of subscribers out there. Would you pay $12 a year for access to all the Gawker Media sites through some kind of encrypted RSS feed? I think you would.
And once that kind of system is in place, we're only a small step from delivering text in larger blocks-short stories, novels, serialized fiction, etc.-over it, too.
And that, people, is what's going to happen to your precious books. Before your lifetime is out (unless you have a terminal illness or get hit by a car, in which case I am very sorry), you'll be buying and reading them digitally. Me, I'll be buying them with the one million dollars James Randi will owe me for predicting the future so well. I want it delivered in a briefcase, Randi!
(Note: In the meantime, those of you who luuuurve your "real" books should check out commenter Braak's new novel, which I can personally attest to being a Work of High Quality. And he is absolutely not paying me to say this-nor did he even ask me to-although I will probably make him buy me a beer later, if some of you buy a copy. WHICH YOU SHOULD DO.)
Commenter Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found at scribblescribblescribble.com/blog.