Every other year, Harvard University awards the Philip Hofer Prize to the student with the best book or art collection. This year William Pannapacker, a doctoral student in the history of American civilization, took second place (worth $1,000) for his collection of some 3,000 books by 19th-century American authors. Pannapacker told the Harvard University Gazette that he will probably never read most of the volumes, but needed them anyway, to round out the collection. Indeed, his assortment includes six rare editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and more than 100 biographies and commentaries on the poet-more than even a grad student could stomach. “Once you get so far into it, it’s hard to get out,” Pannapacker said. “After buying 100 volumes, it’s hard not to buy those next few volumes.”
When I was a graduate student at MIT, I worked part-time as an antiquarian bookseller’s assistant. The experience taught me that Pannapacker has plenty of fellow addicts. They can be amateur collectors such as the late industrialist Bern Dibner, whose personal library of 40,000 volumes on the history of science and technology moved to MIT in 1993. They can be professionals who buy and sell books about narrow subjects (architecture, landscaping and fishing were my employer’s specialties). Or they can be elite, acquisitive institutions such as Harvard, which adds hundreds of books a day to its academic libraries, already the planet’s largest. Book collecting, in other words, is hardly an unusual or new phenomenon. Books have always existed not merely to be read, but to be possessed.
But that may soon change, thanks to a new technology for reading-the electronic book. Once a few bugs are fixed, these devices will probably infiltrate our culture in the same way that pocket calculators, laptop computers and cell phones have. So when the editors of TR asked me to take a vacation from my usual book reviews and think instead about the future of reading, I decided to spend a month experimenting with an electronic book. My forecast, counter to the argument of some critics, is that the new technology will not fundamentally alter the experience of reading, or diminish the role of written documents in our culture. It will, however, force bibliophiles everywhere to rethink the relationship between the tangible objects we call books and the ideas they contain.
Electronic book readers, paperbackor tablet-sized devices with high-resolution displays, hit the consumer market in 1998. Like PCs, they are rapidly coming down in price; one model,Nuvo-Media’s Rocket eBook, sells for about $300. (The SoftBook Reader, by Softbook Press, goes for $600; Everybook’s EB Dedicated Reader, set to debut in the fourth quarter of 1999, will cost $1,600.) The readers can be loaded with new books, erased, and reloaded as frequently as one wishes. The Rocket eBook’s 32-megabyte memory is enough for 80 average-length novels. Buying the electronic edition of a book has become as easy as browsing the Web. I’ve been testing the Rocket eBook, and I find its heft, appearance and operation so similar to that of a real book that I frequently forget about the high-tech interface and lose myself in the narrative.