Andres Oppenheimer

When I interviewed Mario Vargas Llosa a few days ago on the occasion of his well-deserved and long overdue Nobel Prize in literature, one of the things that most caught my attention was his opinion about electronic books.

He made no secret about his anxiety over the future of literature in the age of the e-book.

Earlier this year, -- one of the largest U.S. book sellers -- announced that it is already selling more e-books than hardcover books. Overall, the number of e-books sold in the United States this year is projected to reach 100 million, up from 30 million sold last year, according to the Forrester research firm.


Does this make you nervous? I asked Vargas Llosa. The Peruvian author, who is the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in literature in the past 20 years, responded that "Electronic books are a reality that is already here, and that I think is unstoppable. It's a book that will make many things easier. We will be able travel with a whole library in our pocket, for instance," he said.

But, on the down side, "it could bring along an impoverishment of literary quality," he said.

"There is always the risk that literature that is written for the screen will be more prone to triviality, banality, to a deterioration of intellectual activity."

Asked to elaborate, he said that "it's something that has already happened with television. Television is, on one hand, an extraordinary source of information. But in general, the products created for television are very trivial, banal, compared to creative products that end up in books."

He added, "I think that this is something that we should guard against, in order to make sure that the electronic book maintains (the quality) of literature and its greatest and most creative achievements."

Do you already have an e-book? I asked. I added that every time I fly on an airplane, I see more people sitting around me reading e-books.

"I have also seen many people reading e-books while traveling on planes," he said. "And I have to confess that I felt some shudders the other day when I went to a book store on (New York's) Fifth Avenue and I found that the whole first floor was in effect dedicated to promoting e-books. Paper-made books, which in my mind has always been what I have associated with the idea of a book, have been expelled to the upper stories of the book store."

Will there be paper-and-ink books 10 years from now, or will it all be e-books that will offer a mixture of text, videos and music?

"Paper-made books will survive, but they will probably be condemned to the margins, and at the end of the day they will be on their way to the catacombs," Vargas Llosa said. "Perhaps this marginal book will somehow compensate its lesser audience with greater rigor, greater quality, greater creativity." But there is nothing like being able to touch and "smell" a book, he concluded.


My opinion: Vargas Llosa's fears are well-founded. Paper books will survive, but won't be able to compete with e-books that will offer the possibility of enriching the text with pictures, videos and music. I would not be surprised if, pretty soon, e-books evolve into works with a lot of visual and sound effects, and a few lines of text.

That would be bad news because reading a novel is often a more proactive -- and enriching -- experience than watching it in some form of multimedia version.

When we read, we can stop in the middle of a sentence, think about it, and savor a choice of words for as long as we want it. When we watch, we can always press the "pause" button, but we're mostly passive spectators.

If e-books increasingly replace words with images, the solution will not be fighting them -- they will be a formidable tool for education, in addition to entertainment -- but calling them something else.

We should call them Portable Entertainment Devices (PEDs), or anything else, but not electronic "books." Because, no matter what the publishing industry says, they won't be books.


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