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Time to Lead

No e-books without authors, Atwood reminds us Add to ...

Much of the discussion surrounding ebooks tends to revolve around emotive issues, such as not being able to read them in the bath, get them signed, or showcase them on your bookshelf, and the cosmetics of electronic versus paper text, but a lot what you've said about them has to do with their wider, social implications and you've speculated that the availability of e-books is actually increasing reading.

Well, you can't do much on the Net without being literate. One of the good things about e-readers is that kids are more likely to think they are "cool" and may actually find it easier to isolate pieces of text and read them, especially if they have learning disabilities of certain kinds.

One very interesting - and refreshingly unsentimental - argument that you've made for paper books is that they make it more difficult for people to track what you've been reading.

Security agencies worry about libraries. They tried to target U.S. libraries - make them hand over the list of who had borrowed what at the library. But the thing about online stuff is that it is very spyable. It is extremely spyable, despite all the security precautions and whatnot. Where there's a lock, there's a key.

And reading has always been an inherently political act. Do you think e-books will make certain texts more available to readers in places where those books are perhaps censored? Or banned?

Maybe temporarily, but what I mean by "censored" is that you cannot buy the book anywhere in the country, or it has to go past a censor who removes or changes material, and that was the case in many countries for a very long time. Or, they burn all your books, or they put you in jail, or they shoot you or hang you or exile you. Does total freedom of expression mean that you can say and do anything you like? The law limits that, so it's just a question of where those legal bars are set and how permeable they are.

Yes, the flip side is that just as technology may facilitate the movement of otherwise unmovable text, so too can it wipe it - the permeability factor - and presumably it is easier to put blocks on people's e-readers than it is to go around and raid everyone's house searching for blacklisted books.

It certainly is. E-texts can easily be hacked and wiped. We users are not in total control of our own electronic media: Somebody somewhere may be pouring in code or fooling around with stuff that we have no idea about.

What social and artistic change - if any - would you predict from a society of people who no longer read paper books?

I can't even speculate about that. It depends very much on what kinds of e-books and online newspapers they might read. It's not the e-function that is going to determine that - the e-readers only make things more readily available. We'll be "thinking" in relation to what we take in over these media. Newspapers, of the kind that do analytical pieces, and things like the London Review of Books - you can see thought at work in those, and if e-readers are spreading the reading of London-Review-of-Books-type articles, then you are making space for thought, and if people are reading such things on their e-readers - people who wouldn't have read them otherwise - you're actually increasing thought.

Will the world be worse off if e-books fail?

Well, first let us picture what kind of event might lead to that: 1. Solar flares, which melt all the e-communication services. 2. Widespread plague, which is going to kill anyone running the companies that make them. So that being the case, I would say yes! That the world will be considerably worse off if, the next morning, you wake up and nobody's reading anything on e-readers because the event that will have caused that is horrific!

Rosalind Porter is the co-author of Four-Letter Word (Knopf). She and Alex Clark, her former colleague at Granta magazine, are just about to launch a new, literary imprint in Britain.

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