Review: Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading

Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading
Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading by Jason Merkoski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jason Merkoski was involved on the development team for the Kindle e-book reader and, for a time became a “technology evangelist” for Amazon. This book is a combination memoir and thoughtful exploration of the future of reading in as we make the shift from “analog” to digital in books.

He begins with some history of Ebooks and the development and launch of the first Kindle and then moves into the various implications of the shift to digital, ranging from how we read to what it means to have cloud-based digital content to the use of digital content in education to the fate of libraries. At the end of each chapter is a “Bookmark”, a more focused reflection on a topic related (or sometimes not) to the chapter.

I found the “bookmarks” the most endearing parts of the book, because Merkoski explores in many of these what we will lose or will change in the shift to digital–thinks like book covers (I think of the “analog” to this in some of the wonderful album covers of the LP era). At most we may have a digital icon on our digital shelves. Another talks about the inscriptions we find in many books–how will we do that in a digital age?

There was a kind of guilty wistfulness in much of this–the reflections of someone who obviously REALLY loves paper books who was part of the revolution that will supplant them. He, like many of us in this time, realizes that we are witnessing a profound change in the way we read that will mean the loss of some of the things we love. He also observes that our children (or grandchildren) will probably be oblivious to such things–digital will be all they know.

At the same time, Merkoski sees tremendous potential in this “revolution”–particularly in connecting all that is written into the One Book of human culture. Reading can be immeasurably enriched as we discover the conversation going on between authors, and add to this conversation with our annotations and insights. At the same time, there are pitfalls that reflect the double-edged character of technology–will the lack of physical artifacts (paper books) put us at greater risk of losing great works, will commercialization and digital rights management unnecessarily restrict the availability of digital content, and will the connecting of all this content, and the accessing it on devices with an array of apps lead to digital ADHD?

I’ve explored in greater depth some of the issues Merkoski raises in several blog posts:

The author’s last chapter pinpoints what I think is the source of the ambivalence in this book. Human beings are “analog” beings and probably much of the love many of us have for physical books is their appeal to our physical senses. The digital revolution represents an attempt to transcend our physicality–to digitally put at our finger tips, or even into our brains, the world of knowledge, sound, sight and experience. It even tempts us to try to escape our humanness in digitizing ourselves as people like Ray Kurzweil and other have proposed. I sense Merkoski is both allured and troubled by this project–sensing both the potential wonders and perhaps the loss of what makes us most human–our connection to the physical world. Might we in this “gain the whole world and lose our soul”?

Burning the Page can’t answer all these questions but Merkoski has done a valuable service in helping us understand the revolution we are in the midst of and the questions it will raise.

View all my reviews

3 thoughts on “Review: Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading

  1. Reblogged this on [BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer and commented:
    Like many of you I was up pretty late watching the world series so no post this morning. However, I thought you might want to check out my dad’s review from a couple of days ago of “Burning the Page” a book I covered on the blog a number of months ago. Dad did about a week of posts on the various issues raised by the book, links to which you can find in this review. Each is well worth your time if you haven’t seen them yet.

  2. Nice to see this subject treated well; no narrow-focused threats or promises about the fall of a great thing, but just an earnest look at the way books are becoming digital. My 16-year-old loves books, and is as immersed in technology as all her peers. So I doubt books will ever be completely lost, since there is evidence that young people with no need for a paper book, still choose them sometimes instead of their Internet-based graphic novels that my girl loves too. Recently on the news I heard a story about the solitary typesetting business left in L.A. I think there will always be a market for brand new paper books, and I wonder, in 200 years, at the solitary paper book publisher in some city, what kind of niche will it be? What kind of books will keep us coming back and insisting on paper in the future?

    • Crystal, thanks for your comments! My hunch is that increasingly we will read using digital books and devices, while reserving for ourselves the pleasures of a good paper book, kind of like the joy of fixing a gourmet meal with the best ingredients while dining on simpler fair most of the time. Of course this begs the question of how this will be viable for publishers beyond a certain point–and friends of mine at one publisher already are speaking of the challenges of staying profitable.

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