The rise and decline of the book
December 1, 2006 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Conventional wisdom says that new media -- Internet, cable television, satellite radio, videogames -- is competing with books, putting them at long-term risk if not decline. "The conventional wisdom is wrong". Special report from Forbes.
posted by stbalbach (38 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
(post title: "The rise and decline of the book")
posted by stbalbach at 8:16 PM on December 1, 2006


Wow. Seems like a very cool set of articles.

While I personally don't read fiction, I still read a number of non-fiction and philosophy books a year on my own time.

I've never understood why many people seem think that the internet is somehow anti-literate. I think on some level movies and television can be said to have that effect, but I don't think of internet as a time consuming medium in the same sense. It's really a general purpose, evolving tool.

Also, I went into the Jordan article expecting to feel various smug thoughts about second rate fantasy literature, but that whole thing was very interesting and moving.
posted by Alex404 at 8:28 PM on December 1, 2006


I worked in a record store today and it was dead.

I was in two bookstores today and they were PACKED with people and books.
posted by dobbs at 8:47 PM on December 1, 2006


Interesting set of articles. Read a few, and I'll read more. I love books, myself.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 9:04 PM on December 1, 2006


I am about as "wired" as they come. I work in the tech industry, I IRC, play with web-2.0 apps (ironically of course!), browse websites for memes using an RSS reader packed with feeds, host and sysadmin my own personal network -- outside of work.

And I still pop open a dead tree every single night. It's not replaceable, and never will be. Whether future generations lose appreciation of this medium I don't know, but those of us raised to appreciate books will not lose interest. It's about 200x better than reading something online (give or take).

The Internet is a tool. What it provides that books cannot: Something you weren't looking for, and real-time information. What it can't provide: The aesthetic bliss of reading a book, and the overall higher quality.

Books are more lovingly and expertly crafted. Why? Because you only get one chance. Dynamic media, like what the Internet offers, suffers from being shoddily done in the first place because of the understanding that it is always correctable. Similiarly, compare console games to PC games. People seem to put a lot more effort into making a cohesive/bugfree/errorfree product when they only get one shot at perfection.
posted by cj_ at 9:13 PM on December 1, 2006


I spend 5k a year easy on books. Read about 120 a year. I know there's a lot of folks out there just like me. I love books. I love them more than tv, radio and the internet. They aren't going anywhere.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 9:26 PM on December 1, 2006


This should only surprise those that for some reason believe media consumption is a zero sum enterprise.
posted by absalom at 9:39 PM on December 1, 2006


If there's one thing better than a book, it's a public library.
posted by quarsan at 9:43 PM on December 1, 2006


Three years ago (before I got broadband) I read at least a book a day, now since I have the fast internets I'm reduced to a book a week at the most. That's also due to a more hectic lifestyle and whatnot and it's a sample survey of one but the internet has cut out some of my usual lesiure activities. Like going out in the sunshine.
posted by liquorice at 10:05 PM on December 1, 2006


I was in two bookstores today and they were PACKED with... books.

Warms the heart!
posted by gsteff at 10:39 PM on December 1, 2006


I, too, was recently at a bookstore and witnessed books being sold and purchased, often at the same time.
posted by I Am Not a Lobster at 11:01 PM on December 1, 2006


i'm sorry, but i must disagree here. i've always been a literature/non fiction fan throughout undergraduate and beyond, but i've found that the production and social costs of having a book edited and distributed by a third party by necessity diminishes its zeal.

don't get me wrong, i still read too much. as far as non-fiction goes, however, lately, well, i've been listening and watching hours and hours of the greatest professors of everything (science, technology, english, politics, anthropology, the list goes on...) give lectures to me personally via the interweb for free.

you don't know until you watch someone speak about something how passionate they are about it, and to see all these great minds at the ends of my retinas whenever i want them is much more engaging to my mind. learning differences aside, i believe many people will learn better from reading books, but as far as non-fiction goes, i'll never pick up a book again until the author convinces me to do so in virtual person.
posted by localhuman at 11:02 PM on December 1, 2006


This thesis gets banged around once every 5 years or so. I think the first time I saw it was 1994.

I'm surprised that it's still surprising.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:29 PM on December 1, 2006


Define "book."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:42 AM on December 2, 2006


"Codex" and its printed descendants, with perhaps the most spectacular example being the Book of Kells (available on DVD, no less).
posted by cenoxo at 1:15 AM on December 2, 2006


Some might say that the main component contributing to the longevity and marketability of books is due to a rather nontrivial difficulty in copying them accurately and effortlessly, and that this protects books.

But we could just as well say that books still do well because they are in themselves portable media requiring neither fragile, complicated gadgets nor electricity to enjoy anywhere where there's enough light to read by.

There are other factors contribute to the current and continuing success of books - factors that the movie and music industry would do well to learn from, both creatively and financially.

Diversity is one major factor - diversity of sources and creators, diversity of genres and styles, diversity of publishers. (Independent film and music already succeed in this realm as well.) So is the willingness (or apathy) for publishers, authors and booksellers to not treat active, engaged customers like criminals. Booksellers and publishers also seem to respect the reader's very real personal investment and involvement in the process of literature. In my experience authors and publishers tend to actively support fair use, and many even support extended applications of quotation, discussion or other research.

I enjoy electronic text for ease of use, portability, search ability and reference. I can also carry dozens or hundreds of good books in a PDA or ebook reader. And though I love paper books, I'm ready to go with electronic text now. It's powerful stuff already, and I eagerly await for the technology to mature.

And it's maturing fast. Some new electronic reader (or the next, or next) may end up being the first true Walkman or iPod for text, and we may consider our frustrating, clumsy attempts to read "books" on PDAs, computers or cell phones the same way we now consider earlier audio or video devices.

I feel that some form of this is the future of literature. I just hope that literature is wise enough and adept enough to embrace it without the collective insanity that plagues other media industries.

Physical books will remain but they will be special-purpose - think utilitarian, designer, collector or art. Special editions and such. Some of them will even be for reading. But not nearly as many when compared to electronic text.

But I don't see a reason to fret. I can see having a favorite battered reading device or two, or three - perhaps a nicer more deluxe one for relaxing at home, and the smaller, battered, sticker-covered indestructible one for carrying around. I can see not wrecking my back every time I want to move. I can see "favorite books" becoming special from use not from smell or wear but from non-destructive virtual dog ears and guiltless margin notes and highlighting. I can see reading in the rain or tub without soggy pages - and tons more. Self lighting books! Self-turning books! Auto scroll through one book after another, or tap or click at your leisure for the next line, paragraph or page. Never tear a page on a pillow ever again! Search able, indexed, hyperlinked books! Define any word with a tap of your finger!

Use a solar powered, waterproof, wireless hermetically sealed slab of indestructible plastic that never needs batteries as a window to every book, ever!
posted by loquacious at 3:20 AM on December 2, 2006 [1 favorite]


Books are best enjoyed on paper, whereas music is best enjoyed digitally. This wasn't always the case; it took good technology to make digital music good.

Current e-books are analogous to MIDI files. This will probably change, and bookstores may yet be emptied.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:15 AM on December 2, 2006


music is best enjoyed digitally

I agree. First I use my digits to place the LP on the turntable, and then I digitally lower the tonearm.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:24 AM on December 2, 2006 [1 favorite]


loquacious has it, I think - the fact that display technology isn't at a point where you can comfortably read for long periods is probably the only reason why books aren't suffering at the hands of digital media.

That said, I'll always prefer scanning my bookshelves and picking out a few books before deciding which one to play, just as I'll always prefer picking out and putting on a record or CD, reading the liner notes and enjoying the cover art, to searching iTunes. The tactile components of reading and listening are irreplacable. I'm probably of the last generation to think that, though.
posted by jack_mo at 4:41 AM on December 2, 2006


loquacious has it, I think - the fact that display technology isn't at a point where you can comfortably read for long periods is probably the only reason why books aren't suffering at the hands of digital media.

It's more than that: the newest e-book readers I've looked at finally have acceptable displays, with print-quality resolution and proper lighting, but the form factor and navigation are still utter shit compared to a real book. The manufacturers continue to be hung up on creating "the Brand X Readertron experience" instead of giving people a true alternative to paper.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 4:58 AM on December 2, 2006


Books are more than just information banks - books are a style of presenting information. Style is substance. Some would even say style is more important than substance (Andy Warhol soup cans).
posted by stbalbach at 5:22 AM on December 2, 2006


Style is substance.

Sure, but someone (Apple?) will come out with the right product and then paper books will start to go away.

People will buy exotic, high-style book machines that look and feel and smell like anything they want. They'll buy them in different sizes for different purposes. You'll own two or three or five book machines. They'll have exchangeable covers made of various materials. Some will float. Some will be giant or will have screens that unscroll to giant sizes or project on a wall. Some will look and feel just like a regular paper book feels. The screens will be easier and more pleasant to read than paper pages. They'll cost a hundred bucks and let you read thousands of books for free and thousands more for a low download fee. And watch movies on the right page while you read on the left. And read to you.
posted by pracowity at 8:15 AM on December 2, 2006 [1 favorite]


Personally I don't see that electronic reading devices will make much headway with any but the tech-obsessed set, and even then not that much (hey, I'm tech-obsessed, and I've very little interest in them).

For one thing I can't see myself plonking down hundreds of dollars for the device itself. I also can't imagine using one of those in bed. What if you fall asleep and end up sleeping on top of it? Will it break? What if you're outside and it starts raining? I just took another look at the Sony Reader (not that I would buy one anyway, because it's a Sony), and I have serious doubts about the fragility of something with an LCD that large.

Problem 2 is DRM. When I'm finished with a book, I can pass it on to a friend. One would have to be a hopeless optimist to think the same will be true of ebooks intended for use with electronic reading devices. Maybe it'll be one of those silly things like that zune wifi feature -- you can send a book to a friend, but they can only read three pages, within the next three days, essentially it would ONLY be a way for you, the guy who's bought the book already, to be an unpaid salesman for the company that sold you the book in the first place. This is the sort of thing that I, for one, refuse to do on principle. I'm a customer, I'm not the selling company's bitch.

There's something else too -- I just don't see what's wrong with the physical book format. You can read one no matter what the lighting conditions are, for one thing (try reading from an LCD outside on a sunny day!), they're light because you don't need batteries or indeed any other electronic component, and I've always found real books to be a lot easier on the eyes then any screen. No, I can't carry 10 at a time, but if that's an issue may I suggest that you pick one or two and actually finish them?
posted by clevershark at 9:24 AM on December 2, 2006


Sure, but someone (Apple?) will come out with the right product and then paper books will start to go away.

Ahahahahahahahahahahaha NO.

People still go to concerts. People still sing around campfires. People still make photographic prints. People still cook. People will still read books.

Nothiing will ever replace the immediacy and tactility of books. There's something to be said for tossing a book in your bag, or even moreso, to having your books sitting on shelves along a wall, greeting you as you wake, and becoming a part of your living space.

Having everything you own vanish away in to nigh-imaginary bits on one or two little devices is convenient, but sterile, unfulfilling, and ultimately the best way to give up the most important, basic sort of control over the things that mean something to you in your life - the control of being able to pick them up and move them, fondle them, toss them in your bag, fold the pages, underline them, etc...

Books are here to stay. If anything, this miraculous e-book reader you speak of (which I'm sure will exist at some point) will simply mean that people who didn't read much before will start to. And then many of them will discover real books, and get hooked.
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:30 AM on December 2, 2006


An Ipaq or audiobook for on the go and a 21" LCD on my PC w/feet propped up are all I need until the grid goes black. Then I'll grab my shottie and take over the local library.
posted by HyperBlue at 9:50 AM on December 2, 2006


Put me solidly in the "totally wired, totally into books" camp.

Ironically, being a tech person made me even more of a book person. Outside of the standard set of electives, my education was very, very technical. Once I graduated, I set out to read all the books that I would have read had I pusued a more humanities-based curriculum. 4 years on, and I'm still a voracious reader.

For me, books largely take the place of TV. When I just want to relax and escape the world around me, nothing does the trick like a good book. No other medium offers the same sense of satisfaction or emotional involvement.

The internet is great, too. I was never interested in current events until I got broadband. Newspapers were too awkward and cumbersome, and I always knew enough not to trust the TV news. The internet offers a breadth and depth of information that is absolutely unparelelled.

Books and the internet are completely complementary, in my mind. The real losers? Newspapers, TV, and magazines.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:07 AM on December 2, 2006


Seven years ago, when I was at library school, a lot of the professional literature was written by librarians in full panic mode, convinced the end of books was nigh. Today, the (very) few "eBooks' the library I work in bought collect dust. People just like the tactile sensations that come with reading books...I'd like to believe the same sort of thing will save the vinyl record from complete extinction.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:17 AM on December 2, 2006


The reason for my snarky comment above is that everyone in these discussions seem to use the term "book" in a rather sloppy way to mix up both printed and literary forms.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:40 AM on December 2, 2006


Books may never entirely go away like horses never entirely went away: there will always be hobbyists and fetishists with the money to spend on them. But almost no one will be reading paper books in 50 years.
posted by pracowity at 11:08 AM on December 2, 2006


The same predictions have been made for most of the last 100 years.

50 years seems quite optimistic given how much of the world population doesn't have either stable access to sources of electricity or the communication networks most of us take for granted.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:23 AM on December 2, 2006


The question is not will books die (they won't, ever) but what they are changing into. I currently work in a bookstore, and (while I don't have the figures right now) there are more books being published in the English language right now than in the history of publishing. Yet oddly, novels are being treated by most of the world as irrelevant or 'life-affirming.' The most-touted seem to be hyper-aware and vacant; the best-selling adventures are neither adventuresome nor even fun. Non-fiction books, instead of being Capote's non-fiction novel or more traditional historical or scientific studies now read more like long magazine articles, designed to entertain with factoids more than anything else.

I'm being deliberately cyncial; there's still a good deal of fine work being written and published.

However, there tends to be a back-slapping 'reading sure is good' feeling in our culture. Reading alone is a utility. What you read is what important. As a society, I don't think we're doing so great there. Or, rather, I think we can do a hell of a lot better.
posted by Football Bat at 11:28 AM on December 2, 2006


Well, I'd never heard that "Conventional Wisdom" What kind of idiot would think that?
posted by delmoi at 11:55 AM on December 2, 2006


much of the world population doesn't have either stable access to sources of electricity or the communication networks most of us take for granted.

People off the grid also don't have paper books. Or food, many of them. But in 50 years, maybe they'll get a book-sized piece of cheap disposable solar-powered electronics that holds the entire Gutenberg library x 1000 under a nice readable screen. Everyone will have the money to read because it won't cost any money to read.

Think what an electronic book would have looked like 50 years ago. That's how much the technology has developed. Now increase the rate of development a great deal for the next 50 years. At the minimum, think of those simple solar-powered calculators, cheap as dirt, but with a high-resolution paperback-sized screen and plenty o' non-volatile memory stuffed with books. That will easily happen quite soon. And free wireless downloads from anywhere to such devices. The devices will probably get too small, so they'll combine them with wallets and other things. You could give one to every human being on earth.

But you won't bring down the cost of printing and shipping and storing paper books the same way. Printed books will still be beyond the reach of most of the poor, and libraries will continue to feel pressure to spend on other media and maximize their real estate. If anyone's reading paper books in 50 years, it will be the same folk who ride horses and collect antiques.
posted by pracowity at 12:01 PM on December 2, 2006


I imagine when paperbacks came out in the 1930s they were having these same conversations about the death of the hardcover. Logically, there is no need for a hardcover for most people. Yet hardcovers have not only survived the past 75 years, they typically have priority, with paperbacks coming later, if the hardcover sells enough to justify it. Since digital media is akin to this (more disposable, cheaper, smaller) perhaps it might go the same way.
posted by stbalbach at 12:48 PM on December 2, 2006


Afroblanco: "
Books and the internet are completely complementary, in my mind. The real losers? Newspapers, TV, and magazines.
"

Completely agree. I rarely watch TV, and buy newspapers and magazines less often -- though the latter is because I'm lacking a current passion. When I find another that has an editorial policy that really grabs me, I'll start buying again.

My Amazon toll this week amounts to five books. Two travel books as I'm off to Rome next week. Sure, I could have found the information I needed on the net, but I wouldn't get the editorial quality that I'm seeking. If I was going to Bradford for the day though, I probably would have made do with the net.

Then there's one novel, and two works of non-fiction: a book-length, journalistic essay, and a memoir. Again, for me, the net just doesn't work for long form writing like that. While I'm happy to sit and read a screen for sixteen hours a day, I can't lose myself in it for hours at a time the way that I can in a book.

Put me down with the horse riders and antique collectors.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:55 PM on December 2, 2006


While I'm happy to sit and read a screen for sixteen hours a day, I can't lose myself in it for hours at a time the way that I can in a book.

Sure, but that's still thinking in terms of today's technology. What if the screen is so good that you can't tell the difference between it and a printed page? And if the electronic book is packaged in pretty much any form you like, large or small, heavy or light, fat or thin, any color, any smell, any texture, covered in leather or feathers or snake skin if you like.

Don't be like a guy in 1910 looking at a canvas-winged open-cockpit biplane and declaring that planes will never be good for travel because of everything that is so uncomfortable about a 1910 biplane. Planes got better. So will displays.
posted by pracowity at 1:16 PM on December 2, 2006


pracowity: People off the grid also don't have paper books. Or food, many of them. But in 50 years, maybe they'll get a book-sized piece of cheap disposable solar-powered electronics that holds the entire Gutenberg library x 1000 under a nice readable screen. Everyone will have the money to read because it won't cost any money to read.

Well, again, define book. Is a book a textual work of more than 30K words, or is the concept of book bound to a specific physical format? Or in other words, RTFA, because some of the arguments in that collection of essays work from both sides of the question.

When such a device actually hits the market, then we can talk about a timeline for mass adoption. Until, it's all utopian bullshit.

Don't be like a guy in 1910 looking at a canvas-winged open-cockpit biplane and declaring that planes will never be good for travel because of everything that is so uncomfortable about a 1910 biplane. Planes got better. So will displays.

Of course, we don't remember the hundreds of inventions that didn't get better because they failed to find a market.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:29 PM on December 2, 2006


Do you really think displays will not get significantly better (in terms of reading comfort)? Because a great display is all you need to turn current iPod-like technology into a great electronic library you can throw into your pack. It just needs technology a bit like this in products a bit like this, but with a more open way of managing content than Sony's silly arrangement.
posted by pracowity at 3:36 AM on December 4, 2006


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