If books fade away, can we call the iPad progress?

I am definitely not the type of person a tech analyst would call an early adopter.

I never drooled over the Sharper Image catalog, back in the ancient days (2005 or so) when it used to feed tech lust the way Playboy fed the other kind. I would never think of doing as a colleague did, waiting in line 14 hours at the mall to get the iPhone 4 the day it came out.

But I don’t look down on the early adopters, the people who race out to buy, try and critique on their blogs whatever Next Big Thing the digital carnival barkers are hawking.

Early adopters play a vital role. They create the early market that makes innovation financially plausible. Their fervent feedback helps kill lousy products, and make good ones better.

Then clowns like me can come along two years later, and buy the products at sharply reduced prices. I’m usually late to the dance on this stuff: iPods, Blackberries, HD-TVs.

Yet, the other night, sitting at home with my wife, it hit me how utterly our information habits have changed in a very short time, even as all the changes seemed incremental.

There she sat in her favorite chair, cradling her iPad to read the New York Times and watch an old episode of Weeds through NetFlix. There I sat, checking texts on my Droid and tweets on my MacBook, while watching a Phillies game I’d recorded on DVR, so as to fast-forward through commercials and the boring parts where the players just scratch themselves waiting for the next pitch. And we’re old farts.

Something else hit me, less happily. It had been months, so many I could not recall how many, since we’d done one of our favorite rainy Saturday things—head over to the nearby Barnes and Noble, grab a pile of books to sample over a couple of lattes, take a delicious two hours to decide which one to buy. Book stores, one of the anchor institutions of a civilized community, are closing in droves, as people such as I betray them.

I love the iPad, but that doesn’t mean I have to love all that it does. Whenever I write of ambivalence at the march of digital innovation, waspish correspondents write to tell me I’m a dinosaur who just doesn’t get it.

Here’s what I want to say to them: Life is more complicated than you, in your juvenile enthusiams, seem to get. The very notion of progress as inevitable is a very modern, and peculiarly American, delusion that would confound and amuse our ancestors.

With each, ever more rapid cycle of creative destruction in the digital realm, what is gained is yoked to something lost. We can salute the improvement, while still honoring and grieving things valuable but now gone.

Books are beautiful, glorious objects—the vessels that have rescued generation after generation from darkness and storm. I can dig the iPad, but that doesn’t require me to pretend that the waning of the bookstore is a matter of no consequence.

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