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.