Last night the Wheeler Centre hosted the opening event for “Meanland” – a collaborative project between Meanjin and Overland. (Apparently the organizers found “Overjin” too ridiculous).

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing anything at the Wheeler Centre yet; it is a beautifully renovated old space on the Little Lonsdale side of the State Library. All the new fandangled lighting rigs and whatnot are reasonably inoffensive, and the public meeting space can seat a few hundred. The event last night was “booked out”, but had maybe 30 spare seats.

Sophie Cunningham, editor of Meanjin, MC’d the event, though her main role seemed simply to rehash between speakers and tell them when they’d been speaking too long. Fair enough, I suppose, when 4 speakers need to be squeezed into an hour.

 Before the event even started, I had a little to worry about: I was sitting two rows behind a particularly fetching baby who threatened to hijack the whole operation with its cuteness. I was also sitting next to a woman who was disgruntled about something, and kept doing this weird “T-ahhhhh” kind of sigh. She kept this up throughout the entire event, T-ahhhhing every time I picked up my pen, T-ahhhhhing every time someone moved half a centremetre, thus obscuring her view of the stage (she’s obviously never been short); T-ahhhhing at the very cute baby in front of us.

The panel for this Meanland event consisted of Margaret Simons, Marieke Hardy, Sherman Young and Peter Craven. The question on the table was: “What will reading look like in 15 years’ time?”. Each speaker was allotted a 15 minute window to voice their opinion.

One question that was tackled by all speakers was “what is reading?”. While the answer to this differed, there was no arguments about whether text are moving to screens via kindles, iPads and the like. The panel was reasonably varied in their reaction to this.

Margaret Simons held some hope for physical books because of their importance to children, and as cultural items like coffee table books, having “no intention to throw out my Jane Austen collection!”, while Sherman Young felt no hope or desire to fight for the physical text. While Simons was saddened by her prediction that e-readers would be the dominant mode of reading within five years, Young gave this transition a wider 15 years, and it’s a transition he welcomes wholeheartedly.

Marieke Hardy felt some romantic connection to books, and while she wouldn’t “want to finish The Great Gatsby and see a cursor,” she also seemed to accept that this is the way things are going. As the author of an “M-Book” (a book that gets sent in daily installments to a subscriber’s mobile phone), this seemed a reasonably inevitable position for Hardy.

Peter Craven… Look, I’m not even entirely sure that Peter Craven knew what the topic was. He rambled in an interesting way, but I wouldn’t say I came out with any coherent picture of where he’s coming from. He himself is a traditionalist, still writing with a pen which must be dipped and blotted, a member of Twitter only but another man’s hand. I got the feeling he’d resigned to the fact that e-readers and screens are the way of the future, but stood in very traditional shoes, bemoaning how sad it all is for the industry.

Sherman Young did make a very good point though. We’ve all resigned ourselves to this “the medium is the message” mind frame, saying that because what we consume is moving to screens, it’s being dumbed down, it’s losing its essence… But it doesn’t have to. We create the thing, and while e-readers present a great many “possibilities” for a world of uber-text, these don’t have to be inevitable.

I’m a bit torn on this issue myself. I certainly have fears for the industry and the tradition of reading. I have no greater pleasure than time at home alone with a good book and a coffee. I take great pride in my thoroughly middle-class collection of books on my huge-ass unstable Ikea shelving. And what happens to the fantastic pastime of second-hand-book shopping if e-readers take over? And how can those of us on student wages afford iPads or Kindles?

Having said all this, I won’t say no to not having to print off reams of PDFs for school, paying so much for ink, and lugging five trees worth of paper on trams to and from school.

I don’t think Margaret Simons’ prediction of 5 years of e-reader domination is correct. Perhaps Sherman Young’s 15-year prediction is closer to the mark. But there will always be something that physical books can do better than screens. And it is precisely that romanticized thing about the smell of pages and dog-eared pages and marking favourite passages. While e-readers allow for interactive, exciting, and changing texts, the private spaces that are allowed for in traditional books, that close relationship between author and reader, is utterly irreplaceable.