Are Paper Books Doomed?

It seems to me that paper books are doomed, at least as a mass-produced item. I happen to think, unlike many other people that this is a bad thing. It is not just a sentimental attachment to paper, though I will confess to much of that as well. I am also worried about the loss of paper books because of what it may mean to the future of knowledge and to our ownership and transmission of ideas.

First, let’s consider where the world of media stands today.

Albums, VCRs, and reel-to-reel tapes have largely have been replaced by other forms of media. Newspapers, magazines, and now even printed books seem to be on the endangered species list. In January 2011 Amazon.com’s earnings press release includes the follow quote from Jeff Bezos, the founder and Chief Executive Officer:

“Thanks to our customers, we achieved two big milestones,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com. “We had our first $10 billion quarter, and after selling millions of third-generation Kindles with the new Pearl e-ink display during the quarter, Kindle books have now overtaken paperback books as the most popular format on Amazon.com. Last July we announced that Kindle books had passed hardcovers and predicted that Kindle would surpass paperbacks in the second quarter of this year, so this milestone has come even sooner than we expected – and it’s on top of continued growth in paperback sales.”

(Read the full press release here, if you are into company earnings: http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1521090&highlight=)

Someone once pointed out that “kindle” means to build a fire. So, can we say that Amazon is building the book burning pyre? Maybe that is too harsh, but it is undeniable Kindle, Ikobo, and Nook-like devices are part of the decline of print media.

The Seattle Public Library’s central branch, an interesting building, was expressly designed with the idea that the book was no longer the dominant medium of information exchange and so libraries and people need to adjust and change their approaches to knowledge.

In USA Today newspaper, a front page article about bookstores described the problems facing the book selling industry, and the bankruptcy of Borders Group shows that print books are under pressure.

Is this all bad? As someone who is enamored of the Classics, I worry about a future without printed books. While I don’t think that the medium will entirely disappear, I worry that they will become a luxury item reserved for fancy, expensive editions and splashy, but not very useful, vanity products.

The other concern I have for the conversion of books to a digital medium is that technology changes very quickly, and one could soon find their entire library obsolete and inaccessible. As someone who recently lost five years of digital photos to a backup hard drive that failed, I realize now that it would have been better to have a collection of prints in a photo album. I worry about this happening to literature.

Of course some works will continue to survive. The Iliad made it down to us over thousands of years and moved from oral tradition to various types of books. But we have no idea what was lost in the fire at the library of Alexandria. Will every e-book format change become the latest library fire?

In addition to the many books burned and lost to time, we have only the vaguest clues of how many works were overwritten and painted over by monks who thought those ancient Greek texts on geometry were much less important than more copies of their illuminated manuscripts. It seems that the modern palimpsest will be an electronic one, but whether anyone will try to recover a work from what is essentially the 8-track of literature seems a sucker’s bet.

Thinking about the transmission of knowledge, digital media make everything mutable and erasable. Unless you have an independent system that the Internet cannot reach in and touch, you are not safe, as some Kindle owners found out when Amazon reached in and recalled some of the books that they bought.

In Orwell’s 1984, much time was spent by some of the characters going back and removing references to ‘disappeared’ persons. Imagine how much easier that would be in the era of find/replace all commands. I think there are dangers when we don’t have true ownership over the works that we read, enjoy, and study – and the ones that we produce.

Another concern that I have is about quality. When you take the time to produce a physical copy of something – one that you know will not be easy to change, you spend more time making sure that you get it right, because you don’t want your mistakes and sloppiness immortalized.

The other concern that I have is just a general decline in production quality in general. If we take music as a parallel, we have traded cheap for good. It is easy to amass a large amount of digital music, but the 99¢ mp3 track does not sound the same as a high quality vinyl or even CD production. We are content to stream music through computer speakers and headphones from the smallest file available. It does not sound the same. Anyone who says they are equivalent has never listened to “Gimme Shelter” from vinyl through a good stereo system and speakers.

So how does reading on the screen compare. To be honest, from what little I have seen on Kindles and the like, it seems like the same decline in quality. I have a Sony e-reader around here somewhere that I have yet to experiment with, but I frankly am not expecting much. I will report back with any thoughts that I have.

As everything moves into “The Cloud” – whatever that means – I predict we will lose more than we gain. As books become more and more of a luxury item, the written story will need to compete ever more directly with other forms of entertainment. As people become more accustomed to being ‘consumers’ of media rather than engagers of it, I predict that getting people to read entire stories will become ever more difficult and we will all be more impoverished.

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3 thoughts on “Are Paper Books Doomed?

  1. I thought they were doomed until I made my first foray into digital books. I never finished the two that I purchased. It was like I couldn’t connect to the material. I’m not sure how else to explain it.

  2. Two recent courses I’ve taken have opted for e-books rather than a physical text book. Cheaper for the student yes but that was the only upside I can find. I enjoy reading paper text books and reading them wherever I choose. Couch, bed, cozy bench in the park. Because of this e-book I was restricted to study from a screen and could only access it when connected to the Internet. I too share your sadness in the loss of the paper book.

  3. Wonderful post. I hope you’re wrong, though, and that print will continue to be a viable format for books. The speed with which technology changes should make us thing twice about going to an all-digital literary world. How many of us have bought the same movie in Beta, VHS, DVD, and now Blu-Ray High-Def? Will people do the same for books? Some maybe, like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, but for the vast majority, no. And what happens if there’s some sort of technological disaster–like a super-virus? I think that’s what you meant when you said anyone who is connected to the internet is not safe. I love having my books available electronically, but I love having the hardcovers even more. Thanks for posting this.

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