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The truth, as always, is somewhere in mid-ground between derision and fawning.
The e-book retains one innovation of parchment - hypertext. Early Jewish and Christian texts as well as Roman legal scholarship were inscribed or, later, printed, with numerous inter-textual links. The Talmud, for instance, comprises a main text (the Mishna) surrounded by references to scholarly interpretations (exegesis).
Whether on papyrus, vellum, paper, or PDA - all books are portable. The book is like a perpetuum mobile. It disseminates its content virally, by being circulated, and is not diminished or altered in process. Though physically eroded, it can be copied faithfully. It is permanent and, subject to faithful replication, immutable.
Admittedly, e-texts are device-dependent (e-book readers or computer drives). They are format-specific. Changes in technology - both in hardware and in software - render many e-books unreadable. And portability is hampered by battery life, lighting conditions, or availability of appropriate infrastructure (e.g., of electricity).
The printing press technology shattered content monopoly. In 50 years (1450-1500), number of books in Europe swelled from a few thousand to more than 9 million. And, as McLuhan noted, it shifted emphasis from oral mode of content distribution (i.e., "communication") to visual mode.
E-books are only latest application of age-old principles to new "content-containers". Every such transmutation yields a surge in content creation and dissemination. The incunabula - first printed books - made knowledge accessible (sometimes in vernacular) to scholars and laymen alike and liberated books from tyranny of monastic scriptoria and "libraries".
E-books are promising to do same.
In foreseeable future, "Book ATMs" placed in remote corners of Earth would be able to print on demand (POD) any book selected from publishing backlists and front lists comprising millions of titles. Vanity publishers and self-publishing allow authors to overcome editorial barriers to entry and to bring out their work affordably.
The Internet is ideal e-book distribution channel. It threatens monopoly of big publishing houses. Ironically, early publishers rebelled against knowledge monopoly of Church. The industry flourished in non-theocratic societies such as Netherlands and England - and languished where religion reigned (the Islamic world, and Medieval Europe).
With e-books, content is once more a collaborative effort, as it has been well into Middle Ages. Knowledge, information, and narratives were once generated through interactions of authors and audience (remember Socrates). Interactive e-books, multimedia, discussion lists, and collective authorship efforts restore this great tradition.
Authors are again publishers and marketers of their work as they have been well into 19th century when many books debuted as serialized pamphlets in daily papers or magazines or were sold by subscription. Serialized e-books hark back to these intervallic traditions. E-books may also help restore balance between best-sellers and midlist authors and between fiction and non-fiction. E-books are best suited to cater to neglected niche markets.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and searcheurope.com.
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com