Off the shelf

A big part of me is writing and print, so this Wall Street Journal story (via a Facebook friend) caught my eye:

Lovers of ink and paper, take heart. Reports of the death of the printed book may be exaggerated.

Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital. Opinions about the speed of the shift from page to screen have varied. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and photographs and maps, would in due course have its way with books as well. By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.

Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

My wife and I have focused on this a lot. We’re swapping the home office and the bedroom of our youngest, and we’re sorting through a decade worth of books. And most of those books are headed out the door.

Liz and I love our e-books. Her Kindle Fire is a close companion. I’m reading Oliver Twist on my Android. And we don’t plan to buy many paper books again.

A person surrounded with books conjures up a picture of coziness, of rest – of a Saturday evening by a fire with that most intimate of friends, one’s own mind. This person is happy to be called a bibliophile.

It’s an interesting picture and one that reveals a strong cultural bias. Other reading material doesn’t get such a break.

We read a lot more than books. We read newspapers, for example, and magazines. A person who held onto every magazine he ever received – or every newspaper – would not be a bibliophile. He would be a hoarder.

Look at it that way, and the e-book revolution is heaven-sent. You get the intimacy of reading, without the clutter.

And it’s the Library of Congress – in your hip pocket! Bored in the grocery line? Read a sonnet! Waiting to pick up the kids? Read Raymond Chandler!

Still . . .

Part of the pleasure of book-reading is its randomness. I don’t think anyone completely plans what books he will read. Sometimes a book finds you, and the serendipity is rewarding.

Gifts, for example. A thoughtful friend picks out a book that he believes you will like, but one you would not have thought to purchase. That’s how I read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which I enjoyed.

Or you stumble on something in a friend’s library. Had it not been my wife’s, I would never have read The Fatal Shore, a history of early Australia. And had I not held onto a copy, she would never have read Natasha’s Dance, a history of Russian culture.

And there are books you enjoy so much, you practically want to force your friends to read them. I was that way with The Whisperers, a history of families and repression in the Soviet Union. I wasn’t so passionate about the latest Caro volume on LBJ. I read it on a smartphone, enjoyed it, but haven’t recommended it. Significant, perhaps, I can’t remember its name.

The Wall Street Journal article suggests the inability to pass along treasured works is a major failing of e-books. (It’s correctible, too, as a purchase could include one free pass-along, or one for 50 cents or a buck.)

The kids read voraciously, omnivorously, the way kids do. They both have Kindles, but they don’t use them. Give them an Amazon card, and they have a book shipped.

Kids, of course, are classic early adopters of any new technology. That they prefer old-fashioned books says something about the tactile experience of reading. Something about the weight of the book in one’s hands, and oddly, the smell of paper seems likely to keep old-fashioned books around for some time.


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