The Fate of the Book

The Fate of the Book by • July 20, 2010 • Printer-friendly

Back in ye olden tyme, when graybeards would dismiss supposed ephemera like safety razors and indoor plumbing, the wise and knowing liked to dismiss the dismissers. They would recollect the days when urchins barked, “Get a horse!” at motorists whose new-fangled auto radiators had boiled over. In other words, old-timer, wait a bit before prophesying the doom of anything new.

Or old?

The announcement by Inc. that e-book sales for its Kindle reader are outpacing sales of hardcover books inspired a New York Times writer to a reverse take on the get-a-horse theory; to wit, “The heft and musty smell of a hardcover book are one step closer to becoming relics in a museum.”

That might be taking things, ah, just a bit further than facts would indicate. Though, in a down economy, it’s nice to know people are buying books in any format: my own books included, I can only trust and pray. Over the past three months, Amazon says, the pace for Kindle books is 143 sold for every 100 hardcover books purchased. The company’s policy is not to release exact numbers, so we don’t know either the sales figures or the titles. We do have a pretty good idea that Amazon’s decision to slash Kindle prices from $259 per device to a still-pretty-pricey (seems so to me anyway) $189 has stirred up some business.

The get-a-horse fraternity are no doubt aghast. Who’d read a book on a screen? Not I, but clearly some would.

I have pondered and pondered and can come up with no substantive objection to the use of an electronic reader for the consumption of information and entertainment. Maybe you and I wouldn’t do it, but that doesn’t make the procedure immoral or a threat to Civilization as We Know It. Nor does it cut off access to real books. I think it has disadvantages. I shall state these for the record.

For one thing, a succession of dots against a lighted background is an odd mode for the recording of the more or less permanent. One screen goes away, another succeeds it, then another, then another, then . . .

It’s there but not there, this “book”: hidden away, not precisely inaccessible—let’s say difficult of access, unlike a book, through which you can page at will. Nor do I care for the format of one-page-at-a-time, unlike the two that a book provides. I think, in short, the standard hardcover book is the more flexible, the more reader-friendly, of the two modes we talk about here.

I’ve wondered likewise what you do with an e-book when you’re done with it. File it away somewhere in the electronic bowels of your Kindle or iPad? But in that case don’t you forget all about the thing, unlike a book you put on the shelf, alongside other books: collective reminders of knowledge acquired, joys and pleasures, sadness and sensations realized?

The library and the museum—another place crowded with tangible objects—are the symbols of civilization: places where the accumulated wisdom, not to mention follies, of our lives are on constant display, filling minds with ideas about ideas about ideas. A world without the “heft and musty smell of a hardcover book” would be an impossible kind of world in which to breathe, far less to thrive. Which is why the New York Times‘ grabby, overexcited forecast, mentioned above, is so, forgive me, dumb.

I see no reason that people shouldn’t read Kindles or such like at the beach or the bus, if only for convenience sake. Are lovers of reading, nonetheless, really going to sit around for long stretches of time watching dots arrange themselves on a screen? Smelling warm plastic rather than pages and bindings and glues?

In a free society, consumers always get their way, so eventually we’ll see about all these matters. Meanwhile, I am compelled, sonny, to cast my own ballot, upon which are hand-tooled in gold, with morocco binding, the immortal injunction—Get a horse!


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