(For those unaware, Iain Banks died on June 9th 2013, but neither is this meant to be an obituary.)
Suffice to say that in many ways it was a fitting final Culture book, dealing with the "subliming" of a whole civilization, though it is still sad that Banks is not around any more; he will be missed.
No, what this is about is the end of paper books, along the lines of what I started writing about in Our Hidden Digital Libraries.
The reason I first got to The Hydrogen Sonata now was that I long held back for two reasons. I was annoyed over DRM; I didn't want to buy the Kindle version. I held out and stayed away from Kindle books for a long time over that, and instead spent a lot of money at O'Reilly, whose position on DRM is great. Secondly, I held back due to annoyance over the Kindle pricing - it was more expensive than the paperback version when first published! If I was going to give up my resistance to DRM'd e-books, that just added insult to injury.
When I checked back recently, though, both had been slashed, and the kindle version was cheaper than the paperback. And in the meantime, I've set up the suitable DRM-stripping scripts for Calibre and decided the convenience is too great to stay away, as long as the DRM is easily breakable (but I will backup everything in a DRM free format regularly).
So I ordered both the paperback and Kindle version.
And then it struck me that the only reason I ordered the paper copy at all was because I have all the other scifi books published under the Iain M. Banks name (for those not reading much of Banks, his "mainstream" novels were all published as Iain Banks, sans the "M."), and I wanted the complete set because it looks good on my shelf (oh, no, I'm one of those people now), and for some of the reasons outlined in my previous post: It is on of the "pieces of furniture" that says something about me and my interests.
But read it? My phone screen is more than high enough resolution and large enough, in effect has a built in night light, and is always with me. It is superior in most ways: I'm still not used to having "fixed" pages - I remember a lot of paper books and research papers by page, to point where I can visualize roughly what a section or page I want to read looks like, and how far (physically) into the book it is. I am very curious about how I will deal with that with e-books as I spend a larger proportion of my time reading them.
The paper copy is on my shelf, never opened, and it may very well never be.
It got me thinking about whether I will ever buy another paper book, and my answer was a qualified "probably not any new ones".
For old/used books that are not yet available in e-book form, I may feel forced to, but it is exceedingly rare that I decide there are books I must have right now that aren't available - in most cases I will simply decide the hassle isn't worth it, and end up picking another title on my liftetime long backlog of interesting works I'd like to read. It is very possible I will never again buy a paper book for myself.
Meanwhile it makes me even more concerned about figuring out what to do about discoverability, and that is another reason I wrote this - consider my blog part of my exomind, a fitting concept to accompany a post inspired by a Culture novel. Given that I've more than once found myself pointed back to my own blog from Google searches, it certainly can't hurt. But it is insufficient.
(You should also read this essay by Gwern about archiving which is what reminded me about the exomind idea, but that does not address discoverability either, though it is a fascinating practical look at some of the challenges in even preserving content.)
That a large part of The Hydrogen Sonata follows a manic attempt by Culture Minds to find a small, lost / hidden part of a mans memories is strangely fitting.
And so the The Hydrogen Sonata will have a very special place in my collection for more reasons than one - R.I.P. Iain (M.) Banks.