E-books Get an F

The e-book has not taken off for the very simple reason that the real book as it is - in the shape it assumed about 500 years ago - is simply perfect.

Once, when my parents were on a trip to Switzerland, they traveled up a mountain via cable-car, each of them on a separate seat, as is customary there. Suddenly, the ride stopped for reasons unknown, and they were left hanging there, between heaven above and an abyss below. My father didn't waste a minute. He did the only thing possible under the circumstances, and shouted to my mother, "Don't you do a thing." Soon you will understand what that has got to do with books.

I'm an ardent admirer - some will say a hopeless junkie - of the book in the shape and the form we know it: portable, with no outside source of energy required and hence no need to "turn it on"; fitting comfortably in one's hand; printed on paper; bound; and conveniently designed for browsing and perusing everywhere. Therefore, I look on the efforts to develop and market an "e-book," as a replacement for the other variety, with suspicion and trepidation.

I'm not against progress and I am all for utilizing the technological advantages of the digital world. I'm the first (well, not really the first, but I do try real hard) to incorporate them in my working and living environments. But when people talk about something that will replace the book - and those fans of technology have a constant need to replace something; developing something for its own sake is never enough for them - I'm a skeptic. Some will say I'm an incurable romantic of the book.

Now, it turns out that all I had to do was to sit back and do nothing. The Ha'aretz computer supplement ("Captain Internet," August 14) reported in an article entitled "Bookless book," that the future of the e-book is cloudy. Massive investment and marketing efforts notwithstanding, the contraption has failed to impress the reading public, to put it mildly. The customers pronounced their verdict: Only 50,000 hand-held e-books, produced by several various manufacturers, have been sold to date. This does not bode too well for its future.

A little light on the subject

One of the reasons preventing the runaway success of the e-book and its ability "to look and feel like a real book," it was reported, is the backlight phenomenon. When we read a book, our eye receives light waves that emanate from an external source and are reflected by the printed page. But when we read from a screen, whether hand-held or standing on the desk, we see the light emanating from it, as if from behind the text which thus seems like the source of light. Evidently, the human eye prefers to cope with the reflecting light, and that is why the text on the screen appears unreal to reading aficionados.

I'm fully confident that the tech wizards will circumvent this problem. Even as I write, they are sparing no effort in developing an e-ink, which will enable the e-book to use the reflecting light, like a real book. But until they do, one cannot but notice that these light-and-shadow games of the human eye and the text are somewhat similar to the kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) images of God, light and the Creation. According to kabbala sages of Safed - and I'm simplifying this, of course - the divine light travels toward God's creation, the world, passing through nine spheres, and each time the light passes the sphere, it mingles with the light reflecting from the sphere behind it.

When God created the world, trying to infuse some order in the already-existing chaos, he said, "Let there be light." When we read a text, created by its author, we receive a direct - well, not really direct - light of reason, but it mingles with the light coming from an outside source and being reflected at the reader. This light-and-shadow game of the book and with the book is based on the very simple fact that a book is not only a text (which can be read in various forms, on the screen as well as on paper), but is more than that: The book is, well, a book.

Maybe we should seek an explanation for the relative failure of the e-book in the words of Henry Petroski, the author of "Book on the Bookshelf," recently translated into Hebrew. Petroski, who specializes in the history of technology, admits freely that the belief that technology solves all problems is an illusion. In an interview with Ha'aretz Magazine (August 17), he claims that the popular proverb "necessity is the mother of invention," is not necessarily true. His experience taught him that what generates inventions is the imperfection of an existing object and its inability to function in a satisfactory manner.

Therefore, the e-book has not taken off for the very simple reason that the real book as it is - in the shape it assumed about 500 years ago - is simply perfect.