Normal people might wonder at the almost Pavlovian drooling triggered in some quarters by Amazon’s announcement that the Kindle, the best of the e-book readers, will at last be available in Australia.

After all, at most writers’ festivals, the whole digital thing often sparks far more revulsion than enthusiasm.

For every Wired fan gushing over a new Gutenberg revolution, there’s a dozen pundits explaining — either mournfully or combatively, depending on temperament — how they take tactile pleasure in turning printed pages, that ink and paper smell nice, and that the transformation of the bound volumes on their study shelves into ones and zeroes existing only in cyberspace fills them with equal parts horror and disgust.

Furthermore, many of the predictions about what the computer age would do for literature have fizzled into nothing. For decades, there’s been breathless speculation about the new paradigms opening up: the innovative literary forms capitalising on hyperlinks and embedded video and all the rest of it. So far, there’s been a lot more sizzle than sausage.

Consider, for instance, Simon and Schuster’s recent attempt with the “vook”, a video/text hybrid whose very name suggests a Frankenstein monster, different genres clumsily stitched together into a literary abomination. You can see the potential for video in non-fiction, particularly reference books, but for novels, the inherent disconnect between the deep immersion of reading and the “show everything” experience of video will be familiar to anyone who has been dismayed that a film adaption of a favourite book renders the characters entirely differently to how they’d been imagined.

In Salon’s distinctly sniffy review, Laura Miller writes:

The video clips (which are embedded into the text) are used to add atmosphere or to convey minor plot points; you can watch them or not without missing much of the story, but since you have to stop reading to do so, they feel like extras at best or, at worst, like interruptions.

Likewise, at the recent Melbourne Writers’ Festival, visiting e-publishing guru Bob Stein talked up the potential of Web 2.0 to transmute reading and writing into collective, participatory activities. Again, though, the actual examples adduced seemed distinctly underwhelming. Yes, the attempt by Australian pomo academic Mckenzie Wark to collaborate with readers in the writing of a book on video games is vaguely interesting, but more as a concept than a model anyone else is likely to take up.

Nonetheless, those who assert that nothing could supplant the inherent beauty of the printed book are almost certainly wrong. As Jenny Lee point out, we’ve been through these arguments before. Most of the objections you hear to ebooks were also raised during the paperback revolution, when those cheap Penguins, now hailed as design masterpieces, were dismissed as flimsy, ugly and aesthetically unsatisfying. Lee puts it like this :

It’s a mistake to deride electronic publishing by contrasting the e-book with some idealised (usually old) printed volume that is an enduring source of value and pleasure. The fact remains that most books today are manufactured as disposable items. Even hardbacks are simulacra of the ‘real thing’ – printed on paper that discolours when exposed to light, their cardboard covers coated with paper textured to look like cloth, their glued spines hidden by woven bands.

New technology need not replicate all the attributes of the old. If its advantages outweigh its disadvantages, readers adapt their expectations. The new paperbacks were inferior to hardbacks in almost every respect, except for price and convenience – and that, of course, proved decisive.

That’s the context for the Kindle, a device that seems, at first, decidedly prosaic. Its main claim is not so much that it does something new but rather it successfully replicates something old: its ‘electronic ink’ renders e-books in a form that looks like paper and so puts less strain on the eyes than backlit computer screens.

So wherein lies the advantage over Ye Olde Booke?

Firstly, the Kindle allows you to store an entire library into something the size of a paperback. If you’re travelling, you put the one machine in your backpack, and you’re set for reading material for the entire time you’re overseas.

Secondly, you can download new books almost instantly. It’s this that’s the real killer. In the Huffington Post , Jane Isay describes her transformation from Kindle sceptic to Kindle addict during a period of illness.

I read every day, for as many hours as I liked, and without restraint. I couldn’t work; I couldn’t go out much, and I didn’t need to: there was always another book waiting in line (and on line) for my reading pleasure. I read like a madwoman. I would get drowsy, and on those long reading afternoons when the Kindle slipped from my hand, it fell silently on the pillow and I slept. I found myself talking to it, wishing it a good morning, explaining my time away from it. My Kindle was my constant, quiet, light, and refillable companion.

You can see the attraction in particular in a country like Australia which – how to put this politely? – sometimes seems a little culturally backward (hello, ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’). If you like the sound of some novel reviewed in the New York Times, well, with a Kindle, you can be reading it in minutes.

Or, at least, that’s the idea. As Matthia Dempsey pointed out yesterday (Crikey item 5 ‘Kindle not the book’s IPod moment’), even though you can now get the device in Australia, but you might still have problems legally downloading the book you want, partly because of parallel importation restrictions and partly because the local industry has yet to embrace the e-book.

But there’s another issue, too. If the attraction of the Kindle lies in its ability to more-or-less recreate the sensation of the printed book but with the extra convenience of instance electronic access, the same criteria of ‘good enough’ might also be its Achilles Heel. In an interesting experiment, the academic Ann Kirschner compared Dickens Little Dorrit on a variety of different formats: paperback, audiobook, Kindle, and iPhone. She noted:

I abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can’t do better —and most important, the iPhone is always with me. Woody Allen had it right: Seventy percent of success in life is showing up. Yes, the Kindle’s reasonable imitation of a book is an advantage, but not enough to outweigh the necessity to carry an extra object and its power plugs. The Kindle screen is a permanent dishwater gray, not exactly “just like paper,” as promised by the ubiquitous Amazon ads. With free software like eReader or Stanza, iPhone readers have the same capability for customization (font size, footnotes, highlighting, bookmarking) and a more-elegant interface.

The iPhone has a tiny screen and reading on it is not exactly fun. Yet as Kirschner says, you already have it, and so you don’t need to carry around another expensive (and breakable) device. Again, good enough might triumph over good.

That’s particularly the case when you consider the kinds of books that do best on e-readers. They’re much more suited to genre fiction than literature: the very portability means that the devices are more likely to be used in settings (airports, bus rides, etc) where you’re looking for escapism rather than complexity.

Furthermore, the impermanence of ebooks (what happens to the books if the device breaks or gets superseded) means that readers are more likely to buy disposable novels in electronic format. You want Gabriel Garcia Marquez on your shelves — but you’re quite happy to have Queen of the Orcs safely hidden in digital form.

Times are not great for literary publishing. The GFC arrived as the industry already struggled with the collapse of a reviewing culture, declining print runs. and a general crisis about literature’s role in contemporary society. Hence the hope, in some quarters at least, that the Kindle – or something like it – will bring sexy back to reading, that, fortified by e-books, literature will let its hair down and take off its glasses, and the reading public will say, ‘My God, literary novel – you are beautiful!’

Now that’s probably not going to happen. But e-books are not going away, and the industry’s going to have to adapt. It may be a bumpy ride.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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