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20,000 Mockingbirds: On The Changing Unchanging Nature of Books
While working myself through the back-list of the Nebula Awards for Best Novel, I came across Slow River by Nicola Griffith, a dark science fiction novel set in the not too distant future. At one point the protagonist tells an anecdote which is highly relevant to everyone with an interest in electronic reading or digital publishing (no spoilers: the quote can be enjoyed without revealing anything about plot or characters).
I heard a story once about when the book reader first came out, a young man gave one to his grandfather. He turned it on, pulled up a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, and showed grandfather how to change the pages. Granddad said, ‘Thank you very much.’ The younger man left him happily reading. A year later, when he went back to visit, the young man found his grandfather reading the same book. ‘Wonderful thing, this reader,’ the old man said, ‘but I wish they’d brought out some different stories.’ The old man had no idea that there were nearly twenty thousand different books on that disk. That he could have bought hundreds of other disks, or simply downloaded others—anything at all—from the net. He was used to a book being immutable. The fact that the words on each side of the ‘page’ changed didn’t make a difference: this was To Kill a Mockingbird, so how could it be anything else?”
– Slow River, Nicola Griffith
Today tablets and ereaders have become more and more popular primary means of reading, so this Griffith anecdote shows significant amounts of precognition. We can only hope that some of the darker aspects of the future displayed in Slow River will not be equally accurate.
image: CC by Chickens in the Trees (vns2009)