Reading; Literacy… What do they really mean?
Books have staked out their own special territory over the past (is it decades or centuries?). The book's recent rise in popularity has determined how people read: There had already been reading, but the arrival of the book changed the parameters.
Books are protean: they occupy a vast range from disposable paperback to priceless art object. You might take one book to the beach, while you would rarely take another book out of its glass display case. E-book readers are not that way at all: they are computers with data storage, not disposable or priceless. If the texts are stored on-board, then an entire collection can be lost or destroyed. And, yet nothing of great beauty can be presented on a small screen.
If you say the charm of a book is its physicality, you're talking about more than one quality inextricably tied together. This means that the future of books is precisely in their physicality. People will go on reading wherever the opportunity arises. E-reader devices allow you to read without the physical book – a benefit whenever the physical book is cumbersome, but a drawback whenever physicality is part of the joy of reading.
I am still uncomfortable with the term “e-book”. Something like “e-reader” or “reading device” makes more sense. There were already mobile devices. You could already read text on a computer screen. Where we always get stuck is in translating the experience. No one could quite agree on the proper formats, and jealousy sets in where money and reputation was at stake. If someone wrote a book, it made sense after the fact to redistribute the text contained within in an electronic version. Online reality beholden to the printed book industry. At what point does the flow reverse, making paper books beholden to the formats that exist on data networks?
Think about how bookbinding works: Bind books that need to be bound. Either because the material is not conducive to the screen on a mobile device (e.g., coffee table sized atlases and art books), or because it can be produced cheaply (e.g., pulp romances at the grocery checkout). But bookbinding can now be the handmaiden of a wider knowledge industry, just as E-book readers had to be from the start. So many things we used to bind up in books is better kept online. You don't need to carry around an entire encyclopedia, even if it does fit in a chip the size of your fingernail – that space is wasted. Don't print and bind volatile information – that's called a newspaper.
Electronic devices for reading don't have to follow the book format at all. They make more sense for reading newspapers and magazines. Weren't a lot of novels published in serial anyway? Short fiction and essays show up in magazines or journals.
What does a library do now? …Warehouse print? What are the occasions for patronizing a library now that the Internet exists?
I read a newspaper article about how the Columbus library decides what new books to collect. Something didn't add up… The industry releases a hot new book on a predetermined day, and this library needed to decide in advance how many copies to purchase. There was a waiting list to check out the hot new book. Most patrons won't have to wait more than a week because the library ordered nearly enough for everybody on the list.
(Evan: remind yourself how to blockquote this is RedCloth…)
As a bookseller, I would like to argue that libraries just NOT carry new books. Maybe if you are so hot to read the new J. K. Rowling on the first day, you should drop a couple dozen bucks for the privilege. Then, the library can offer more depth in their collection, and you can read that book a few weeks (months?) down the road for free. When we all get into this rhythm, you find yourself reading more and better books AND living in a world that supports kick-ass libraries and bookstores.