If someone had predicted in 1994 that we would be reading books on a Star Trek-like computer pad, I might have laughed. Actually, it’s pretty amazing how many inventions have mirrored Star Trek. Communicators in the form of flip phones. Hyposprays instead of shots, which now exist. The tricorder — NASA calls it LOCAD — which is used on the International Space Station to detect nasty microorganisms like salmonella, e. coli, and fungus. And, of course, the small hand-held reading device we call an e-reader.
Considering the long journey from clay tablets to the e-reader, books have made some radical strides in the past 20 years.
Cai Lun, court eunuch during the Qing Dynasty, invented paper around 105 AD, replacing papyrus and paving the way for bound books to come into use during the Tang Dynasty, circa 868 AD. Since then we’ve added artwork, but beyond various methods for producing words and illustrations on paper, books as large, heavy tomes remained largely unchanged until 1501AD, when inexpensive small format books were introduced.
Fast forward to 1971. The University of Illinois began Project Gutenberg, a free electronic public library, which now offers over 46,000 free ebooks whose US copyrights have expired. Several companies began to offer books on CD-ROM or in HTML format. In 1994, C&M Online Media, Inc. launched the first commercial ebook distribution network. In 1998, the first ebook readers were introduced. In 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle. In 2009, Barnes & Noble followed suit with the Nook. A year later, Apple jumped on the bandwagon with iBooks, pre-loaded on its iPad.
With the advancements digital books have made in the past 20 years, what’s in store for us in the next 20?
Digital books now account for between 20-30% of all books sales. This number will almost certainly increase as e-readers become ubiquitous and the next generation begins to read. Audible book sales will also continue to increase. Will we see science fiction-esque advancements? I hope so! Google Glass boasts a voice-activated, hands-free information display directly in front of your eyes. While it’s currently not feasible to read a book this way, future iterations will probably include this component. Pliable readers might be next—imagine rolling an e-reader up and slipping it into your pocket! And who knows? In 20 years, we might be able to slip a flash drive into an interface and download a book directly into our cerebral cortex, and read it at our leisure with our eyes closed. Physical books will probably be relegated to a print-on-demand model as consumers become more comfortable with digital media.
There will always be purists who relish the experience of holding a physical book and inhaling the scent of its pages. There’s nothing quite like it! Still, I believe some exciting new technologies are in store for us in the next few decades. I can’t wait to see what the future brings!