Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Real Books--A Vanishing Species?

According to Publisher’s Weekly, this last February, for the first time ever, sales of e-books surpassed sales of all other forms of books—hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback and audiobooks. With sales increasing so rapidly, e-books will likely outsell all other categories of books put together by the middle of next year. So one must ask, is the physical book on its way to extinction?
The next polar bears?

I confess to having a Kindle. My first was a hand-me-down from my husband (a true gadget guy) when he upgraded himself to a newer one. The early model had many design flaws, and after hearing enough complaints from me, my husband gave me the latest greatest version last Christmas.

I like my Kindle. It’s readable, light in weight, and the battery lasts over a week. But what I appreciate most is that I can get books cheaply and whenever I’m in the mood.  (Who doesn’t like good value and instant gratification?) I don’t have to plan ahead or even walk to my local bookstore or library. I click a button and I have a new book. Magic.

Did I mention it’s light and e-books are cheap? I’m reading three books right now concurrently and was able to make progress on all of them while traveling the other coast visiting colleges with my high school daughter. Three real books (one of them 952 real pages) would have filled a good chunk of my suitcase and would have cost me $26.64 versus the $14.95 I paid.  (To be fair, one of the books was a classic free in e-book format.)

So as a reader, I am beguiled by the good value and convenience e-books provide. But as a member of a literate society, I am disconcerted and uneasy at the breakneck speed they are superseding the real.  Last month, the independent bookstore in my neighborhood closed its doors for the final time. Though it was already on its last legs due to chain stores and on-line competition, the advent of digital undoubtedly pounded the final nail in the coffin.

These days media of all types transform with bewildering speed, each one as changeable and enticing as a kaleidoscope, each one calling for our attention. In such an electronic wonderland, bookstores are scrambling to reinvent themselves as places that still have meaning. Which leads to this question: just how important is physical interaction with ink on paper?

When I walk into a great bookstore filled floor to ceiling with works old and new, it’s like entering a cathedral. It’s a place of communion and awe. Ideas and stories whisper and buzz from pages, fellow worshippers smile slightly, acknowledging communal connection. The bookstore owners, while perhaps not high priests, are at least deacons knowledgeable in the sacrament. For these basilicas of literature to disappear completely into the night, to be replaced by nail salons and Dunkin' Donuts, is a terrifying thought. Visiting a web page, clicking a button is just not the same. Even if I don’t visit them regularly, like a soaring cathedral a bookstore’s very presence fills a profound spiritual need. I might very well be better off tithing to a venerable bookstore than to my church.

Perhaps as bookstores slip away, libraries will fill the void. But libraries, chronically underfunded, are going digital, too. The most popular service any library provides now is free access to the Internet, and many libraries offer e-books on loan. E-books require no shelving, no special cataloging or tough plastic on their covers. They can be turned into large print books at no extra cost, and the books don’t get torn, ruined, or lost. For people who have trouble getting to the library, especially the elderly, they can be a godsend. A collection of e-books can be managed at a fraction of the cost of physical ones. In ten years, I have to wonder, will physical libraries--with their community rooms and staff that give you recommendations and remember your children’s names—even exist?

Last but not least, as an author I’m wary of e-books. For an e-book, the cover is merely a postage stamp-sized selling point, no longer a subliminal communication each time the reader picks up the book. With an e-book there is no heft and weight in the hand that telegraphs the kind of book to a reader. (Le Petit Prince! War and Peace!) After an e-book is read, it is rarely loaned out to a friend. It’s never donated to a library; it’s not traded in for another book at a used bookstore; it doesn’t sit on a shelf beckoning recall or attention. With no physical reality, once an e-book is consumed, it only exists in the memory of the reader. With the vast quantity of books these days published in flimsy paperback rather than durable hardcover, the lifespan of a book is already short enough. In the digital world, an e-book becomes a pebble dropped in a pond with potentially very few ripples.

People need stories, from banal to transcendent, so although the delivery mechanism may change, some type of storytelling will continue. I’ve also read speculation that physical books will never entirely die off, that people will still value and acquire beautifully bound copies of books they really love. One’s collection of books will become an important personal statement, not unlike the art hanging on one’s wall. And because human beings need places of physical communion, I’ve no doubt we will create them in one form or another, from coffee houses to communal gardens. But as the kaleidoscope rotates, as bookstores fade and their elements transmute into something altogether different, the uncertainty is unsettling. In the rustle of a turned page I hear the whispers of scholars and students and poets and bibliophiles echoing across the centuries, all the way back to the moment Gutenberg first applied ink to his printing press. And I feel, very profoundly, a sense of loss.

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