Monday, April 20, 2009

The End of the Book?

Pundits have been prophesying the end of the book for decades now. This article in today's Wall Street Journal makes the most persuasive case yet--speculating on the effect Amazon's Kindle will have on book-reading in the future. 

I tend to be pretty skeptical about these sorts of prophecies--parallels to iTunes and its impact on music sales do not seem to follow. For one thing, there is a different aesthetic when it comes to listening to music compared to reading a book. Music is not tactile (unless you are playing it); as a result, the delivery system for music is indifferent: whether it is a LP, 8-track, cassette, CD, or MP3, it doesn't matter as long as the audio experience is the same (or improved). 

But reading has its own experience--from opening a brand new book to sniffing it (I love the smell of Eerdmans books!) to paging through it and sampling the pages. These are things that will never be duplicated or recreated in a digital form. 

Likewise, the whole phenomenon of old books cannot be duplicated either--there is something about antiquarian books that moves us, I think. The care to preserve this title; the associations for the generations that maintained it and passed it on; the serendipity of finding a particular old book; the necessity of libraries (still in our digital age); the hopes of portability--all of these things cannot happen with the Kindle.

I admit that I'm a hopeless bibliophile and former archivist--I have a very healthy respect for the book, which predated Gutenberg. The form has lasted at least five thousand years--not just the idea of writing words, but writing them on paper to be preserved and shared. Far after this weblog or some e-book's pixels have disappeared, I suspect that Augustine's On Christian Doctrine will still be around, printed and bound, waiting for a rediscovery.


Richard in Albany said...

How can you get in bed and read and enjoy the sensation of having the book hit your face when you fall asleep if you have a Kindle.
Give me the old books!

Loleeta said...

Elizabeth von Armin on books: -"but the [books]stay with me winter and summer, and soon lose the gloss of their new coats, and put on the comfortable look of old friends in every-day clothes, under the frequent touch of affection. They are such special friends that I can hardly pass them without a nod and a smile at the well-known covers, each of which has some pleasant association of time and place to make it still more dear." It just can't happen with a Kindle! (from a fellow bibliophile)

David Filson said...

Hi Sean - Yes, brand new Eerdmans and P&R books have a nice, peppery aroma when you fan the pages and breathe in deeply.

Bob Smallman said...

I agree with all that has been said. I have no doubt that the Kindle (and its successors) will have some impact on the publishing world, but I can't imagine not having physical books to hold, mark up, and adorn my shelves.

Just one example: Some years ago I bought the digital set of InterVarsity's reference books and gave the physical volumes I had to a friend. I can't tell you how often I have wished to have those books back! I know I can't "search" them in the modern sense, but I'd love just to be able to browse through them in a leisurely way that I simply can't with my digital library.

Nor can I loan out my digital books to friends who need some help on a particular subject.

And, besides, they just LOOKED so cool sitting there on my shelves!

Dave Linton said...

Someone has claimed that books are furnature in many respects. We all like to be surrounded by good furnature. Give me the books.

Brandon said...

Dr. Lucas,
I agree with everything you have to say about the printed page. I must, however, respectfully disagree with you on the matter of music not being tactile. There is a difference in downloading a song from iTunes to your MP3 player and sliding a mint condition vinyl LP of Charlie Parker or, say, "The Boss" even, out of it's protective cover, feeling the edges of the pressed vinyl, seeing the light reflect playfully off of the shiny black grooves, and smelling the faint whiff of cardboard and chemicals that have been used to create the next hour of your leisure. The sound quality of MP3s and other digital media are just too clean (in my opinion). There is something earthy and real about vinyl--hearing the first "pop" from the speakers when the needle finds its home in that first groove. There is an atmosphere created by the record and its player that is simply missing from a CD or MP3.
Great post!
Brandon D.
(also a bibliophile.)

Sean Michael Lucas said...

I agree with you, Brandon; LPs were tactile in a way MP3s are not. One of the saddest days of my life was watching my dad burn my albums after he went to a Bill Gothard seminar. I had a mint Born to Run LP with the fold out linear notes ;-(.