ePaper and the author’s Time Capsule

I’ve been getting excited lately about an innovation called ePaper. You may know about this, but for those who don’t let me explain: this is basically a sheet of plastic embedded with black and white beads. When the beads are charged (positive or negative) one type or the other surfaces and stays there. The basic result is that this is a static printed sheet that will remain like that forever, just like paper, BUT can instantly be changed into a completely new sheet.

The end result of this is the potential for computer screens that are thin, flexible (fold it up!) and very energy-efficient. And it’s as easy to read as regular paper. No backlight eyestrain.

We’re only now as of 2008 starting to really unlock its potential. Amazon has a device called the Kindle, which uses it as an eBook reader. The Kindle can store hundred of books on it, and anywhere you have cellphone service you can access the internet for free to check Wikipedia or Amazon’s website for ordering and downloading books.

Amazon’s Kindle has great ideas and potential, but smacks of proprietary monopolism as well, you have to use their format, can’t use .pdfs but have to convert them, etc. There are other eBook readers out there using ePaper, but none are quite as impressive.

But thinking about ePaper and eBooks got me thinking about the book industry in general. People have said “print is dead” since the computer age began. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now, but I DO think print is going to change.

Take, for example, the publishing company of BAEN Books. They specialize in science fiction, and recently have put up an online library providing eBooks of their titles for free, usually the first title in a long running series. The idea being you give them the first book for free and they’ll be willing to pay for the newer ones in print.

Much to BAEN’s surprise, they found that they were flooded with orders for the first book in the various series – the very ones they were providing for free! It would seem that, at least in this generation, we are attached enough to material objects that we still want a nice hard copy of a novel we’ve already read. I find this comforting, but wonder if this will be the case several generations from now?

It’s hard to say if ePaper is the future, it might be a stepping stone to something else, but it does make me think that the paper book might change yet again. Imagine a book where all the pages are ePaper. No power source in it, the pages are static, until you plug it in to change the content, a whole new book on the same book. But maybe that will only be for the nostalgia seekers, maybe a generation growing up with a single page that changes as you need it to will simply not desire anything else. And then the age of the novel made up of three hundred pages of tree pulp and ink will pass, just as Guttenberg made a lot of monks unemployed in the long run.

It’s print, Jim, but not as we know it.

But this ease of access of information we’re now living in brings another worry to me. We’re in danger of storing everything and remembering nothing. Who needs to learn and remember things when you can just look it up when needed? I could go on about this Google Memory, but I won’t. Maybe another time.

A side effect of this train of thought, however, is it makes me wonder how many authors will be remembered twenty, fifty, a hundred years from now? Some of my fondest memories as a child came from digging into my grandma’s attic and finding old books. I never read most of them, not many were for children, and those that were were of a nature I couldn’t relate to. But it didn’t matter, it was the discovery that mattered.

Actually I DID find an Illustrated Classic version of Around the World in Eighty Days, which was a favorite of mine. I still remember some of the images from it clearly and hope to track down a copy of it again someday. That’s always been a favorite story of mine, and for different reasons every time I read it.

But if everything is online and electronic, what books from future generations can be found in attics waiting to be discovered? There is something tragic in this potential loss of a child’s discovery. Even if it is forever imprinted online, it is forgotten.

Then I think of how fleeting fame is. Sic transit gloria mundi. We remember the works of Shakespeare, for example, but how many hundreds and thousands of published, prolific and one-time famous authors are now forgotten, possibly forever? One of the reasons we write, I believe, is to be remembered. It’s not just a story for the present, but a letter to the future. But it seems to me that while we will all be filed away digitally and never actually forgotten, it is unlikely most of us will ever be recalled. Out of sight, out of mind.

Therefore I propose a special time capsule, just for books, just contemporary authors – from Margaret Atwood to Markus Zusak. Not just Pulitzer Prize winners, but all the good authors whose work has been praised but know deep in their bones they’ll be forgotten shortly after they die.

I invite you to create a collective attic that our children’s children’s grandchildren can rummage through with glee. I would suggest you include a letter, preferably handwritten, folded and inserted into your book, with a message for the future, whatever you like. Maybe one of us will be lucky and still be in print, or perhaps those books included will find themselves reprinted, or at least be mentioned in the media and downloaded by a bunch of people. Hey, we
might not get any royalties out of it, but it is a chance to be remembered one last time.