When Geordie Williamson’s library arrives one Tuesday morning, it is in a single cardboard box, about the size of a mass market paperback. The contents, once unsheathed from a plastic sleeve, constitute a library of about 20,000 volumes. These include the canonical works of Western civilisation, from the pre-Socratic philosophers to the recent day, along with thousands of less well-known novels, poems, essays and plays. Also present are classics from Asia, Africa and the New World in translation and the original. Sitting snug in the palm of Williamson’s hand, weighing about 130g, lies what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called “the papered memorial of mankind”.
Except, of course, the books in this library are not assembled from glue, thread, boards, leather, parchment or vellum. The Apple iPod Touch uses a thin backlit panel filled with minute liquid crystals that are activated by sensors that monitor changes in electrical current — a finger swept across the panel’s surface turns the page, a light tap switches between titles — that can instantly summon every leaf of every book to the surface of its luminous screen. Williamson, chief critic for the Australian Literary Review, continues:
Many of us regularly read newspapers and magazines on computer screens: e-books are something else altogether. Full-length texts, readable using hardware designed to approximate the printed book, have been around for some years now; but, whether it is a recent leap in their power and sophistication, a demographic shift in favour of younger, tech-savvy readers, or simply a question of aggressive marketing on the part of the key players chasing a potential monopoly, these electronic incunabula are suddenly at the forefront of discussions about the future of publishing.