The Book of Clouds

By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  November 17, 2010

The smell of data
Long spoke of how some of the readers she interviewed saw e-readers as "travel accessories." Others felt crowded by their book collections and saw their e-readers as a way to simplify their material possessions. The Abramovs of the bunch, she said, were apprehensive because their reading material now lives in a cloud. To them, the solid presence of a book offered reassurance.

Many of Long's subjects spoke lyrically on the sensual pleasures of handling books, rhapsodizing about the feel of the pages and the pretty covers. They said they love the smell of bookstores and libraries, too, and how their bountiful corridors promise infinite knowledge. "The tone is one of pleasurable sensory immersion," she said.

And displaying their personal libraries to visitors is a way of expressing their inner selves. "How can we tell who people are if we can't look at their bookshelves?" Long asked. In certain socio-economic circles, displaying the right books is important. "Legitimate" literature has always gotten pride of place, Long noted. "Mystery, science fiction, and especially pornography are sentenced to back corners, stuffed away out of sight," she said.

Long spoke to one publisher who speculated that those books will soon disappear from peoples' shelves into the cloud. Romances will likely be the first to go. In addition to being stigmatized, romance fans consume far more volumes than those interested in other genres; now they can get rid of those untidy stacks of mass- market paperbacks. Out too with the leather book jackets that some romance readers, while on the bus, use to conceal the rippling pirates and heaving damsels on their books' covers.

So will all physical books someday disappear entirely?At present, the answer seems to be no.Earlier in the day, Harvard computer scientist Stuart Shieber raised the specter of Jack Valenti, who in 1982, at the outset of home recording, memorably denounced videos in front of a congressional panel: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone."People like to say that Valenti was wrong about the VCR — home video became a huge and sustaining new revenue source for Hollywood. But he wasn't wrong about the implications of the VCR and its capacity for unlimited free copying — which has haunted the recorded-media industries ever since. Part of the reason VCRs and DVDs were successful is that Hollywood tightly controlled the technology: delaying the release of consumer machines that would make it easy to duplicate videotapes, copy-protecting the movies themselves, lobbying government for imposing stiff fines and high-profile litigation against consumers who engaged in the sharing of copyrighted content.

The Internet, DVDs, CDs, and broadband have borne out that Valenti was right: given the means, a significant sector of the public will freely distribute movies to each other in ways that are eating away at Hollywood's profits. The music industry, whose products could be freely exchanged on the Internet even before the rise of broadband, has been decimated.

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Related: Girls talk, The death of the American city, revisited, Interview: The authors of Future Boston on building the Boston of tomorrow, More more >
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