Many writers have expressed a hope, a vain hope perhaps, that paper publishing will persist over the rise of the e-book. There is a unity of form in the printed object and people like that semblance of reality.

But before we all become country and western singers and lament the passing of an old form we ought to remember that what we are accustomed to is one type of technology and that clinging to it, or believing it has special properties, over and above any other from which conveys the same type of data, can be misleading.

A couple of instances can explain what I am saying here. The three-minute song, which became the 45 rpm single which launched many musical careers originated in the 78 and three minutes was its maximum playback duration. As that form was a commercial and distributable product it forced song writers to develop an art that could be merchandised on that technology.

Audiences rapidly became accustomed to this format and by the 1960s there was a widely held belief that songs over that length (as Bob Dylan experimented) would never sell because audiences would reject it. But like Harry Warner’s dictum that audiences would not want to hear actors speak; the ‘laws’ of technology and acceptance are not fixed.

We have museums of technology and stories passed around of children wondering at wind up car windows, or marveling at old LPs with their huge pictures. Though these children may stare astonished at the big format and enjoy the wider, warmer sound of a vinyl record, they would not want to deal with static or the scratch at 30 seconds into track two that required you walk over to the player and move the stylus along.

Printed books are one of the most enduring technologies ever developed. The e-reader and tablet offers additional convenience (certainly when traveling as 30 books becomes a few megabytes), archiving and functionality that print cannot approximate. Their different forms may suit different occasions, and if there is sufficient commercial basis both formats can continue side by side. TV didn’t kill radio or magazines despite dire predictions. But whatever occurs we can be fairly sure that people will always look back at a technology and see it in a haze of happy associations.

Guy Cranswick
18 February 2012

PS. Printed books still offer more tactile enjoyment and I look forward to ‘Nine Avenues’ in print.