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Lisa Miller

May 8, 2010

Not quite ready to turn the page on book reading

In the latest chapter of a steady march toward a paperless world, Google announced this week that it will launch its own e-book store this summer.

The news should not come as a surprise. The e-book market took off in 2007 with the launch of Amazon's Kindle book reader and gradually gathered momentum.

According to In-Stat, a technology market-research firm based in Arizona, worldwide sales of e-readers are expected to reach 28.6 million in 2013, up from 924,000 in 2008.

Add to that the huge popularity of Apple's iPad wireless Internet tablet, which sold 1 million units in its first 28 days, and it's easy to see why Google wants to get in on the action.

It's a trend that elicits mixed feelings in people like me, who are young enough to be excited about the possibilities the new technology offers — but old enough to be a bit nostalgic for vinyl records and stacks of childhood library books devoured on lazy summer afternoons.

I grew up loving books. Not just reading, but books. The tactile sensation of turning the pages is, for me, inextricably tied to the joy of reading a great novel or short story.

The feel of a book, the weight of it; the smell of paper and ink when you crack open the cover — these are part of the experience.

A point-and-click or touch-screen book purchase cannot compete with the fun of walking into a big bookstore and browsing the spines and displays, plucking a book off the shelf, studying the cover, flipping it over, reading the back.

That being said, there's a lot to celebrate in the paperless revolution. Going paperless offers the distinct advantage of reducing the things we carry and the stuff we store.

When everyone transitions to wireless Internet tablets like the iPad, there won't be much need for heavy briefcases and filing cabinets.

Teens may no longer spend the first part of their school day trying to cram overstuffed backpacks into impossibly skinny lockers.

We won't clutter our homes with CDs, books, DVDs, games, greeting cards or photo albums.

We won't need large offices or desks, because our calendars, planners, files, reference books, Rolodexes and financial data will all be stored in the digital realm.

It will be a lighter world, but a very different one.

Already, having something no longer means holding it in your hand, and the things we own seem transitory; no longer permanent fixtures on dusty shelves, but invisible bits of data stored on tiny chips that we can't see or touch.

As technology advances, the cost of producing (and, by extension, buying) a computer tablet like the iPad, which now starts at $499, will decrease to the point where it may make practical sense to rethink old ways of doing things.

How much might a cash-strapped school district save if it issued each kindergartner a tablet on which everything from beginning readers to calculus textbooks could be downloaded?

The environmental impact of going paperless remains unclear.

Electronic delivery of newspapers, magazines and books could potentially reduce greenhouse gases emitted during production and distribution of these items in their current form.

The decreased demand for paper is another potentially huge benefit, but it may be offset in the short term by the environmental cost of producing and recharging all the batteries needed to power this new wave of electronic devices.

This problem will likely be solved in a later chapter, perhaps with the development of super capacitors that, unlike batteries, never need to be charged or replaced. Or who knows?

We may even figure out how to run these devices using solar power, much like today's outdoor lighting fixtures and pocket calculators.

I get the appeal of the iPad. It's pretty incredible: one lightweight device (½-inch thick, 1.5 pounds) on which to check e-mail, surf the Web, watch a movie and read a book or The New York Times.

I'm sure I'll have one (or something similar) — and not be able to imagine my life without it — in the not-so-distant future.

Still, I can't think of any "app" that could diminish my love of books in their original form.

The possibilities of a paperless world are exciting, and the advantages are clear. Yet, I'd still choose to curl up with an old-fashioned paper book if left to my own, um, devices.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.

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