Thursday, February 25, 2010

If books go paperless

Elizabeth Zelvin

Remember the vision of the paperless office? When personal computers first took off, it was predicted that the mounds of space-eating paper that any kind of business (including a writer’s personal business of writing) demands would become obsolete, as everything from corporate contracts to canceled checks was stored electronically. It didn’t happen, and not because text and images couldn’t be reproduced in electronic form. The problem was, and still is, that as the computer industry has gotten further and further entrenched in its model of competitive operating systems and rapid obsolescence, it has become impossible to count on access over time to material stored even a few years in the past.

Besides being a mystery writer, I’m a therapist who’s been seeing clients online for the past ten years. Both confidentiality and documentation are important to mental health professionals, however they work. I see clients in a secure chat room that makes transcripts accessible online only to me—and deletes them after 18 months. I recently heard from a former client who wanted me to write a letter attesting to something we’d discussed in 2007. I reviewed the entire record of his treatment so I could respond appropriately. It was available only because I’d printed out transcripts of every session at the time and kept them all in a paper file in the same kind of file cabinet I used to use in office practice.

So how about my writing records? I have manuscripts I stored up to ten years ago on floppy disks. I can read them only because my seven-year-old computer still has a floppy disk drive. Even so, some of the old disks can become corrupted, and I can’t access that material at all.

Archivists and historians are currently mourning the decline of the personal letter, which in the past has provided a huge body of source material. People don’t write letters any more. They send emails—which may be deleted on the spot by the recipient or lost when the sender changes his or her email software or simply upgrades to the next version.

The Kindle and other e-readers are evidently here to stay. Everyone who has one seems to love it. Royalties on Kindle editions seem to be competitive. And authors are enthusiastic about using it to keep their backlists available. This makes them good for both authors and readers, especially series-loving mystery readers.

So what’s the catch? Books bought in Kindle or another electronic format are accessible only as long as the device they’re stored on doesn’t become obsolete. And new versions, not to mention competing devices, are already proliferating. The computer industry has given us no reason to believe they’ll make sure books we bought for the Kindle of 2010 will be readable on the Kindle of 2015. So readers who loaded up on the complete works of Shakespeare and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone from A to U this year may have to buy these books again.

Mystery readers in particular are great re-readers. I love to take out a cherished volume in battered paperback—Gaudy Night or Brat Farrar, for example. I have a trade paper copy of Pride and Prejudice that I acquired in college fifty years ago and still dip into occasionally. I have a complete set of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances that I inherited from my Aunt Anna, who died at 96, leaving towering piles of mysteries and Harlequins. Heyer is still a favorite comfort read. I read with a bandanna spread out on my lap to catch the flakes that crumble from the brittle pages and use a rubber band to hold them together, since all the glue has vanished from the spine. But I don’t have to buy another copy.


Undine said...

This may be slightly OT, but personally I'm horrified by the increasing obsolescence of words on paper. I don't even have a single e-book because it bugs me to have to read anything on a computer screen for any length of time.

Just recently, I heard of a study which showed that when people read something off a computer, their brain does not process the information nearly as well as when they read the same material on paper. If this is true, the implications for the future are a bit frightening.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Undine, you're not OT at all. :) But your comment is a part of the debate that I've heard many times. The obsolescence factor is one that's mentioned seldom, if ever, so that's what I wanted to write about.

jenny milchman said...

Hear, hear, for yet another reason the paper book must never die! I have my share of brittle, crumbling mysteries as well, Liz, and loved your description! This is a great perspective, and tying it to your psychotherapy practice presents a unique angle I hadn't thought of before (I practiced in the field myself for 13 years).

Melissa E said...

I admit to being a Gadget Geek. I LOVE electronics. I can't imagine how we got by without cellphones, GPSs; laptop computers; etc.

I'm still using an outated map because I don't want to spend $69 to upgrade my $99 GPS.

I had an early PDA (got rid of it because it lost all data when the battery died).

As for books, I don't plan to ever buy an electronic reader. (Watch me eat my words in five years) I want to hold the book, turned the pages and ... don't faint... smell the dusty, musty aroma of a well-loved book.

Kadi Easley said...

I buy a ton of ebooks for my Kindle, but the stuff I really really really like and want to read multiple times, I buy in paper books as well, and usually in hardback if I can find them. I like to have my favorites on my bookshelves.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think the rise of digital books is inevitable, and that it will seem natural and desirable to younger people who are accustomed to living their lives through electronic media. We should be grateful they're reading at all. But I do love printed books, new and old. There's something magical about a very old book that has passed through many hands. And a new book, never opened before, can be as exciting as a brightly wrapped gift.

kathy d. said...

Gosh. How do people do research online without paper?

I print out articles, blogs, items from websites and newspapers when I have to do research.

Then I work from a paper file of materials, making notes, typing into WORD.

And I do still keep some of the materials.

I actually wrote something this week on the health care industry from newspaper articles I'd kept.

This may make me a dinosaur but it works for me.

I don't know how else people do this without printing out research materials.

And I love books--the look, feel, paper, pages--and will not give them up.

Julia Buckley said...

Some very interesting points here about storage that I never even considered. It's true--I have a whole bag of old letters that i saved from my teens and early twenties--but I never save e-mails, and some day all of that correspondence could be lost.

In addition, I find that I don't put the effort into an e-mail that I once put into a letter: the effort, in essence, of being charming. :)

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.

lil Gluckstern said...

I, too, am a psychotherapist-does that account for my love of mysteries? I'm so happy to have discovered this blog and some new people to read. I have old Georgette Heyer books I rebought because they are so classic, and they were a guilty pleasure when I first read them. Who knew they would become valuable? I need to read real books for the paper, turning the pages, and my eyes which are regrettably older. Besides, plastic just doesn't do it for me.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My short answer would be "Yes." I believe my mystery writing and my work as a therapist spring from the same passion for connection and fascination with what's going on beneath people's surface.