On wine bottle closures and the way we read

We’re prepared to pay seventeen bucks at my place for a personal designer pizza so, to go with it, we should have a reasonable bottle of wine. I just picked up a ten-year-old merlot from the wine shelves I euphemistically call a cellar, and noticed it had a cork in it. Yes, one of those old cylindrical pieces of bark from a cork tree. Not the now-ubiquitous Stelvin cap.

When that merlot was bottled, we were on the cusp of something, in Australia at least. We’d forever had the idea that cork was the only respectable closure for a wine bottle and, if it didn’t have a cork, it probably wasn’t up to much as wine. The wine industry was about to experiment with Zorks (a stopper, with a bit you unwound and a design to impart a semi-cork-like pop on opening) and bright synthetic corks and screw-tops, specifically the Stelvin cap. Most of us assumed these would all stay on the margins, and we’d stick with cork.

But we didn’t. Within a few years, there was a seismic shift. We had said we loved cork. We loved the wines that came with a cork in the top, the noise of uncorking, the physical act of opening, and the fact that cork was natural. Its grasp seemed unshakeable. And then it shook.

A few good Stelvin-capped wines was all it took. We forgot the noise of uncorking and renounced the physical act for something much easier. We realised wine had a much better chance of lasting under Stelvin cap. As a wine-maker friend once said to me as he showed me his Stelvinator, ‘only one cork in a hundred is as good as a Stelvin cap’. Australia, in a rush converted to Stelvin caps.

I could be wrong, but I think we’ll see the same with ebooks. Not for the same reasons obviously – paperbooks don’t break down and their contents don’t oxidise unattractively if the paper stock’s not perfect. But most people I know who have ebooks are like the wine drinkers who came around to Stelvin caps mid-last decade. Real-life experience took their doubts away, and suddenly the new technology seemed to come with lots of advantages. With ebooks it’s things like space and often price, and ease of purchase.

So far, none of my friends who have gone down the ebook path have turned back, and I don’t think many will. And I’ve had emails and tweets from people I’ve never met telling me I ended up being the last author they bought on paper.

Ebooks are just beginning. I can’t really guess what they’ll become. As Simon Groth of if:book Australia said to me the other day, at the moment they look like books under glass. In its own way, that mirrors what happened in the 15th century when books started to be made by printing presses – they were made to look handwritten, because that’s how books looked. It took decades before the advent of good typefaces and some of the features of printed books that we all take for granted. Ebooks may not always look like pbooks under glass, but we’re comfortable for now that they do.

Is there anything we’re really missing with ebooks? And don’t say book smell. Someone always says book smell. I sometimes wonder if someone should bottle book smell so that people can spray it when they read ebooks. Or when they just want to think nice bookish thoughts. Yes, the battery in a paper book won’t go flat – a paper book is good for 500 years without recharging if well cared for. And you can’t lose all your paper books by crunching one device (though I do know people who have lost all their paper books through other means).  Is it harder to share ebooks than pbooks and, if it is, can we work on that?

I say all this as a pbook reader, and as someone who still likes to buy at terrestrial bookstores, and listen to the recommendations of staff who know my tastes (a feature far more meaningful to me than the online ‘people who bought this also bought that’). So, I’m no personal ebook evangelist renouncing paper, but I need to come to grips with what looks like the future.

Where do you think our reading will be in ten year’s time?

Let’s all come back here then and see how close our guesses were.

Now, I’m off to find a corkscrew for this merlot. And I’m hoping the cork is one of the better ones.

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15 Responses to On wine bottle closures and the way we read

  1. Cally Jackson says:

    I’ll admit it, I was going to say book smell.

    I have a Kindle but so far haven’t been able to read many books on it because I keep being given paper books as gifts. So far, with my limited experience with e-books, I’ve liked that it keeps my place (no more bookmarks), that I can highlight sections of text and make notes about them (great for book reviewing and analysing writing technique), and that I’m able to keep the device in my handbag easily. It will definitely be interesting to see how quickly e-books become mainstream. Time will tell…

    • nickearls says:

      It appears that your only problem with your Kindle is that you have many friends choosing to lavish you with gifts. Nice. Keep it up.

      • Cally Jackson says:

        Yep I’ve got way too many generous people in my life. Very annoying. Sigh..

    • Lauren says:

      Now if I could only reverse your experience and say that I didn’t read paper books anymore because people gave me a free e-book reader and just so many free e-books, then I’d be a happy girl!

      My biggest difficulty with the e-book reading conversations is that I’ve never been able to read a whole book on one, people just don’t share around their electronics! If I could loan an e-book reader and have a go, and then won an e-book reader for free…then I might be a convert! For now, I’m sticking with libraries where it’s all paper and cheapness (that said, they’re definitely coming along with hiring the e-books!)

  2. Ryan Haynes says:

    I enjoy reading. I can get lost for hours in a good story and only come back to life when i realize the suns gone down.
    I find I cant do that with a screen. Watch movies yes, play video games yes. But not reading. I always end up with a headache.
    For that reason I cant let go off a the ol’ pbook

    • nickearls says:

      I always found that with early e-reading devices. It was like a computer screen, and that was like work (as well as the headache thing). They’ve come quite a way from there – far enough for me at least. Now that it’s not like backlit text on a screen it feels more like what 20th-century folk like us might call ‘the real thing’. It’ll be interesting to see if it evolves far enough to win you over.

      • Ryan Haynes says:

        I hope so. I hear so much praise for the convenience and ease of use that can be found with them, but that immersion thing has me beat.

  3. Printed books will be a niche in just a few years, like vinyl is today in the music world. Here’s John Siracusa’s argument for ebooks:


    Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word “horse” for “book” and the word “car” for “e-book.”

    “Books will never go away.”
    True! Horses have not gone away either.

    “Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome.”
    True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don’t go everywhere, nor should they.

    “Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can’t match.”
    True! Cars just can’t match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

    Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn’t. I’m sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a “horseless carriage” — and they never did! And then they died.

    A few more points and links for interested in my presentation on ebooks:

    Click to access iPad-Digital-Publishing-Roundup-v3.pdf

    And don’t forget:

    • nickearls says:

      Thanks for that. The horses point is great. I was once told – and can’t say if it’s apocryphal or not – that Britain’s car industry badly lagged behind the rest of Europe’s at the start because fear of the horseless carriage meant that each one by law had to be preceded by a man on foot with a red flag and a whistle. We seemed to get over that.

  4. Fraudster says:

    Insatiable reader for 50 years. Now a Kindle convert. Has revolutionized my reading. Better than ever. Never have to wait for a book. Finding lots of reading recommendations on line. Love it. Cheers.

  5. Brilliant post Nick. In ten years time, what will I be reading? Um probably less and less either on paper or tablet…I spend too much bloody time reading ingenius blogs as it is…

  6. Rob Payne says:

    First, let’s work on an ebook smell app for all those missing the musty aroma of slow paper decompositon.

    Secondly, I bought a bottle of wine last week and was utterly shocked to find a cork in it. I scavenged around looking for a corkscrew, finally found one tucked away and forgotten, then wrestled with the stupid thing for several minutes, fully expecting the bottle neck to shatter and lacerate my forearms. Good riddance to corks!

    • nickearls says:

      I keep waiting for the smell-o-vision apps. Have I missed anything, or could we be the first?

  7. Melanie says:

    Hi Nick,

    There’s a French e-textbook company that launched a ‘smelly ebook’ program at some point a few years ago. They sent out stickers that smelled of musty books to students who bought their e-books, saying that you could stick them on your e-reader and still enjoy the smell of books. http://gizmodo.com/cafescribe/

    • nickearls says:

      Okay, so the concept is out there, but kind of lo-tech so far. I’d love it if it came right out of the device (without it meaning paper was actually decomposing in there). I might settle for a wireless connection between the Kindle and one of those air fresheners you see on TV that emit a bug-killing fragrance every so often. Surely they could load some nice calming book smell in one of those?

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