Article – The Form of the Book: or, Why the Book IS NOT DEAD

*slams head against desk*

People, can we please stop asserting that e-books are killing printed books, or that printed books are dying or dead? Because they’re not, and this isn’t just me clutching obstinately to a well-loved medium.

I can’t tell you how many articles or posts I’ve seen where someone has announced, “the book is dead!” Part of me thinks they do it to get a rise out of people, like trolls on the internet. If they actually believe this, though, they’re being very short-sighted.

What brings this up now, you ask? Well, first off, I have yet to rant on this topic here (I have yet to rant about pretty much anything here). Recently, though, I read the following article:

Good-bye Books, Hello E-Books

The article discusses how, in December 2012, more e-books were sold than print books. There are a lot of other facts as well, all perfectly accurate as far as I can tell. But after going into these facts, which concern technologies used to access e-books and figures associated to sales, the author offers this conclusion:

“I can read the writing on the wall. The days are numbered for physical mass-market books —even if that number isn’t a small one. Sure, some books, newspapers, and magazines will live on. But, horses lived on after the arrival of the car, too; you just don’t see them very often anymore. The same fate awaits physical, paper-based books.”

No. Just no. Discussing how more people bought e-books than printed books and then concluding that the printed book is dead is like saying, “more people apples than pears last year, thus the pear shall no longer be farmed next year.” It doesn’t hold water. All these stats say is that more people bought e-books than printed books, which shows the popularity of both e-books and the technology necessary to access them.

Actually, I’m more apt to say that magazines and newspapers will cease to exist in print. Their very ephemeral nature melds well with electronic technology; you read them, you throw them away (or you recycle them, if you’re a good person and wish my continued respect). You might save a clipping or an article, but you generally don’t keep the entire publication. If you truly want to save an article or clipping from a newspaper or magazine you accessed through an e-reader or computer, you could save it to your computer or print it (if that EVER becomes possible; let me know if you figure out how to do so), or you could take notes by hand (a shocking idea).

Let me explain to you why e-books will never cause the extinction of the printed book. Picture this: you have a printed book. Now, mentally throw it across the room and slam it into a wall. Walk over and stomp on the book for good measure. Do a spirited flamenco dance on it, for good measure. Now pick it up and read it, because you can; the book is intact. Can’t say the same for your laptop or e-reader, can you? You can do pretty much anything to a book (short of it burning to ash in a fire) and still be able to access the information it contains. You can even soak it in water and you can read it, so long as you dry out the pages correctly. This is one of the reason books have survived for so long: they’re durable.

Let’s try this another way. Remember video tapes? Cassette tapes? I bet you loved those in the ‘90s. Saved family videos on them, saved favorite music on them. Can you watch or listen to them now with ease? Most likely not (unless you’re me, and you still have a functioning VCR hooked up to your TV and a Walkman easily accessible). You can’t access the information on video tapes and cassettes without the right technology. Same goes for floppy discs. It’s hard enough to find something to read a hard disc, but floppy discs? You’d have to go to a museum of technology or someplace that really needs to upgrade their computers.

And that’s the crux: access to information. If you can’t access the information it’s useless. It’s one of the challenges facing libraries and archives today: with so much information requiring electronic technology for access, how do collection policies and the needs of accessing the collection change? While the issue of physical space may not be such a challenge anymore, how do you continue to provide your patrons with information? Other issues arise to take over.

Am I saying electronic access to books and other information will stop? No, not at all, and it shouldn’t. What I am saying is that what we know as the printed book is not near death.

To make this a bit more understandable, let’s stop thinking of print books as print books. Instead, they are physical objects with words inscribed physically upon them. These have existed since the advent of writing. Cuneiform tablets, papyrus, manuscripts, all of these are included under this umbrella. This is the Form of the physical book, the theoretical and general ideal (I’m getting Platonic on your butts; booyah course on Medieval philosophy!). The only technology required to access information here is the ability to read (and the ability to inscribe the information in the first place). That’s it; it requires us. E-books, by contrast, require some form of technology. You depend upon something else to be able to access the information.

And that is why the book is not, and never will be, dead. It will evolve, of course, but it will never cease to be so long as we survive as a species.

End. Of. Story.



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6 responses to “Article – The Form of the Book: or, Why the Book IS NOT DEAD

  1. Daniel Winocour

    The alphabet replaced cuneiform and hieroglyphics; the printing press replaced handwritten manuscripts; and electronic readers are replacing the printed word. I grew up in the pre-digital age and haven’t bought an eReader yet, but I’m sure I will. I will miss printed books, but the electronic medium does not mean the end of literature. Once libraries can get increased access to ebooks, they will discontinue buying print materials. It may not be this year or next year, but in 5-10 years, most books will be electronic. The library and the librarian are endangered species.

    • Daniel, I’m not saying that libraries won’t or shouldn’t supply access to e-books. Quite the contrary, I think it’s very important that they DO.

      What I AM saying is that electronic media will not REPLACE printed books as things stand now. Without getting into a debate about whether the alphabet “replaced” cuneiform and hieroglyphics, or printed books replaced manuscripts (these are very complex evolutions with a lot happening on both sides), there is one common thread: all of these produced a physical form of writing. What I am saying is that electronic media CAN NOT replace printed material due to its reliance upon technology for one to access information. I went into a bit of detail about the ephemeral and quickly-changing forms of such technology, and it requires constant funding to upgrade to new technologies.

      Put a different way, when a library buys a printed book it has that book until it either becomes too damaged to lend out or it gets weeded. By contrast, a library doesn’t ACTUALLY buy an e-book; instead, it subscribes to allow its patrons access to an e-book. Overdrive Media is used by my public library (and many others). The library has to continually pay a subscription fee for this service, meaning that e-books cost much more in the long run than printed books. This might seem a bit mad to some, but you have to realize that there had to be concessions made for an e-book’s DRM. Without using a subscription-based access policy a library could, potentially, allow an infinite amount of people to access the e-book all at once. This isn’t something a publisher wants.

      Again, don’t get me wrong, e-books are fantastic and I can’t wait to see where technology takes us yet. Not only do I love any media that gets people to read, I myself own an e-reader. However, just because e-books are popular now DOES NOT mean that the printed book is dead or that e-books are replacing printed books. Something else might in the future, but not this and not now.

  2. The e-book in its current form is part of an evolutionary process, not the end of the process. We do seem to have difficulty coping with that concept. I speculate that e-books and hard copy materials will share center stage for many years to come.

    • Here here! I completely agree. Even the manuscript at the printed book co-existed for about 150 years, and one can definitely say that the printed book replaced the manuscript as their form is essentially the same. The e-book issue is far more complex.

  3. Pingback: Book-less Library | The Blog Was Better

  4. Daniel Winocour

    There is an article about a bookless library in Texas on one of the ALA postings. The future is here. Libraries and librarians are endangered species.

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