The summer after I finished fifth or sixth grade (I forget which), my photo appeared in my home-town newspaper along with a two- or three-paragraph story. In the photo, I was carrying a teetering stack of books, my weekly haul from the public library. The story quoted one of the librarians about my seemingly unquenchable thirst for reading. As I recall, I would have won the prize as the library patron who had read the most books that summer — if there’d been such a prize.
I still read lots of books — 100 or more a year — and I’m not even a particularly fast reader. But something has changed in the last half-century. I now read books almost exclusively on my Kindle or my iPad (mostly on the former).
I love these new reading devices. Amazon.com has reported a substantial upsurge in book sales to its Kindle customers — about 50%, I believe — and I’m very much part of the pattern. I read more, I read faster, and I find myself remembering more of what I read. So, I’m always puzzled when friends tell me they HATED the Kindle they bought or wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book on an iPad.
In fairness, I’m an early adopter of new technology. The iPad promises a new reading experience? Sign me up! The new Kindle offers a screen with higher contrast? You’ve got me! I’ve never thought “new” was always better. But in my experience it often is, and it’s certainly worth trying.
It’s occasionally tempting to accuse the Kindle-haters among my friends of being Luddites. Then I recall that the Luddites were workers whose jobs were being consumed by the mechanical monsters they confronted, so that analogy would be unfair to them.
Yes, I too lament the protracted death of bookstores. I’ve always loved to wander at a leisurely pace through the aisles of a well-stocked independent bookstore (or even, I confess, a Borders or B&N at times). I used to appreciate the feel in my hands and the unmistakable smell of newness of a new hardcover book as I opened it for the first time. But my life goes on even though I experience these pleasures so much less frequently these days.
Many people seem to equate the advent of the e-book as the death-knell of books and publishing. Of course, it’s certainly true that the publishing industry is restructuring in major ways, but that’s a process that began years before e-books became widely available. It has as much to do with the rise (and now the seemingly imminent fall) of the major bookstore chains and, perhaps even more so, with the increasingly large role played by the big-box discounters.
The problems of publishers aside, it’s nonsense to think that the printed book is a dying phenomenon. Last year, according to a friend who runs a publishing company, one million titles were published in the U.S. — a much larger number than had been the case only a few years ago. Apparently, there’s been a spike (or flowering, depending on your point of view) in self-publishing, which accounts for hundreds of thousands of titles. As far as I can tell, Americans may be buying fewer books, magazines, and newspapers, but I’d have to be convinced they’re actually reading less.
So, the world is changing. What else is new? Growing numbers of people now read e-books in addition to, or perhaps instead of, printed ones. But the e-book itself is obviously a transitional format. When it costs no more to print in color, or to include photos or other illustrations, the black-and-white age of the typical printed book will certainly fade. And it’s only a couple of steps further to the multimedia “book” that incorporates audio, video, and interactive features.
If you’re one of those people who can’t part with the feel and the smell and the heft of a printed book, five or ten years from now you may still be reading in the age-old format that began (shakily, it now seems) with Johannes Gutenberg.I expect to be navigating my way through the colorful and engaging content of a multimedia “book.”
Books on paper aren’t going away, at least not anytime soon. Eventually, probably decades from now, the book will become an artifact of a time long passed. What will have replaced it? What is the book of the future? I won’t begin to speculate. But I’m convinced that billions of educated people will be “reading” at least as much as we are now, learning a lot, and enjoying it immensely.