Kindle or paper

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
I recently re-read a novel Arabella by Georgette Heyer, a delightful historical romance by one of my favorite writers. The novel was published in 1949, but my paperback edition was printed in 1972, almost 50 years ago. The book is a bit yellow with age but still in a pretty good condition. If I want to re-read it in 10 or 20 years, I have no doubt I’ll be able to.

As I held it in my hands, I wondered: what would happen to my books on Kindle, to any Kindle file, 50 years from now? Would the files still exist? Would any device 50 years into the future be able to read the surviving files? For that matter, what about 20 years into the future? Or even five?

My old Kindle started to misbehave last year, and my son bought me a new Kindle last Christmas. I was happy until I wanted to re-read one of my old Kindle books and discovered that the new device didn’t recognize the old file. Mind you, only four years old. After further investigation, I learned to my horror that my new Kindle couldn’t read 80% of my old Kindle books. I had to call Amazon and ask them to replace all my books, but I haven’t checked whether they did it or not. For now, I’m sticking to paper books.

Same thing happened to music. In the last half-century, there were vinyl records, audio tapes, CDs, and what-nots. They’ve all become obsolete, together with the devices to read them. But the sheet music, written on paper, has persisted for centuries.

I shudder to think what might happen if the paper books are pushed out of circulation. It hasn’t happened yet, but the signs are here that my favorite format, mass-market paperback, is being driven to extinction. Too expensive to produce, they say.

The problem is: a digital file is ephemeral. We can still read some ancient writing on clay tablets thousands of years after the writers died. What will our descendants read, thousands of years from now, if many of our books now exist only in digital format? We might lose the entire generation of self-published writers, because they opted to publish their books in digital format only. After all, a digital book is often much cheaper than paper, to produce and to buy, much more affordable to our readers.

Addendum: There is an interesting article in LitHub on the deteriorating condition of all books printed on wood-sourced paper, but it is a slow process, much slower than digital files getting obsolete these days. We need to think about preserving our libraries, public and personal, but we still have time. Our paper books, even the ones published 100 years ago, are still readable. Fortunately.

What do you think?

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16 Responses to Kindle or paper

  1. That’s why DLP publishes eBook AND print. Those print books will be around for a long time.

    When I download music, I still like to put it on a CD, which feels more permanent. Same with digital photos – I print the good ones. I have photos from over 100 years ago but their digital counterparts probably won’t last 20.

  2. Hopefully the digital can be preserved in the same manner. The iPad still takes eBooks.

  3. That’s terrible that you lost so many ebooks. I hope Amazon restored them. I like print books better but as I get older I don’t want too many possessions, including books.

  4. Denise Covey says:

    I just found my old Kindle yesterday. It was a gift I scarcely used as it’s more convenient for me to read ebooks on the run, on my phone. I must charge it and see what’s there. One of the things that bugs me is the lack of letter writing. I loved writing letters. So many books have been written in reference to letters found in attics bound with ribbons. Then there are dusty documents. What will we leave behind? Will anyone care enough to go through our emails? Hah. This digital life has some downsides that’s for sure. I love progress, but not the trashing of everything old.

  5. Wow – that’s crazy that your old ebooks didn’t work on your new Kindle. You make a really good point about the possible impermanence of digital works. There’s something to be said for good old fashioned print books.

  6. Beverly says:

    I prefer print books. I do like my iPad though.

  7. patgarcia says:

    I haven’t thought about that. I assumed that updates would automatically be done by the publishers to keep the digital book alive. By the way, I love Georgette Heyer and have most of her books.
    Wishing you all the best.

    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  8. Loni Townsend says:

    I download every book I buy, stick it in calibre, and convert it to other formats, just so I can be certain I’ll have the text in case one format or another goes obsolete. It’s why I hate DRM so freaking much. I don’t plan on pirating anything. I just want to make sure I get to keep reading what I pay for. I also create multiple copies on my cloud services, just in case something goes wrong, I’ll still have access to it. It’s also why I refuse to buy digital copies of movies and will only buy the disc. Services go under and then you lose your content. If I can’t store it where I want, I won’t invest in it. It’s why I have my music stored locally on the hard drive rather than relying on music providers.

    Am I over the top? Well, yeah, probably. But hey, in the ever-changing technological world, a squirrel’s gotta protect her stash.

  9. emaginette says:

    Interesting discovery. I use Calibre to manage all my ebooks. It can convert books as well as file them away on my computer.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

  10. Widdershins says:

    I always get paper copies of my favourite books. The thing with ebooks, digital music/movies, etc, (apart from the step-down in quality) is that we don’t actually OWN that ebook or downloaded song. What we’ve done is paid to licence a copy of the original … which could disappear at the whim of an algorithm. Hence my penchant for paper books, DVD’s of movies, and CD’s of music. 🙂

  11. cleemckenzie says:

    Obsolesces is certainly possible and more quickly than ever before. I was talking to someone working on that very issue and what technology is considering for the future is beyond my comprehension. It has to do with molecular digital storage, very like our human transmission of genes. Do not ask me to explain because while I got the concept in my head, I have no idea how it might work.

  12. Juneta says:

    That is a thing. I know I buy a lot of digital books, movies, and music. I would definitely hate to lose them all. Good point.

  13. Beth Camp says:

    Alas, what happens when as we age, we can only read those large-print books? My Kindle has hundreds of books, and the adjustable print makes them all accessible. I never thought what the next generation of technology will do, so your comments (and reader comments) are very helpful. Of course, adapting to new technology will get steeper, distribution and formats will change. I still miss holding ‘real’ books and turning each page. Do you notice that libraries are investing as much in online resources as they are in hard copies? I’m still grateful people read (and for us writers, that we write our stories). May the new year be good to you and your writing.

  14. Thanks Olga for this. I agree with you and shudder to consider the heritage we are leaving. Fortunately, I prefer reading paper books and so do my children. Even my blogposts are first written out in full in notebooks with ink, then I keep them all on file, once published and reprint them periodically on paper …. We still have all our vinyl records from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and have even started buying new ones. Our sound system is complete with record player, CD and audio tape decks. Can’t get used to MP3. Even use a Walkman when travelling !
    While in Malta, we visited temples built around 3600 BC, the oldest known constructions made without metal tools. They still survive, although they remained buried until the mid-19th century.
    So, if all else fails, let us stack our books in metal chests and bury them ….
    You have given me one more reason not to go Indie/Kindle.
    Merry Christmas writing.

  15. rolandclarke says:

    Your post and your question – What will our descendants read, thousands of years from now, if many of our books now exist only in digital format? – are so relevant, Olga. The modern Great Library of Alexandria? Kindle and other digital files may be convenient but there is a gamble involved – will they survive a techno revolution or collapse? I have a few books in my bookshelf published in the 19th century – invaluable. Even my hardback set of Lord of the Rings is over forty years old. For me, paper wins most times.

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