Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Demise Of Books?

A used book seller name Tom Wayne, from Kansas City, has amassed tens of thousands of books in his warehouse in the past ten years of running his book shop. In an effort to thin out his inventory, he tried to give them away to libraries and thrifts shops, but he was invariably turned away because "they were full." So, in a protest against society's waning interest in the printed word, he is burning nearly his entire inventory of an estimated 20,000 surplus books:


From the article: "This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

In the last 20 years, the number of adults who read for pleasure has dropped from 57% to 50%, likely due to increases in television and internet entertainment. Said one customer, as quoted in the article: "(Wayne has) made the point that not reading a book is as good as burning it."

Sad. Book burning to bring attention to the value of those same books. Of course, Wayne's stunt has set off a flurry of book buying at his store, at cut-rate deals, so you can't feel completely sorry for the guy and his cause. But he has a very legitimate point.

By the time my children grow up they are likely to see paper books as a novelty, and print books will be relegated to sitting, unread, on library shelves and in archives. Libraries, for that matter, will become dusty affairs where people go to read only if they can't find what they are looking for in electronic media.

But even libraries are becoming obsolete as title after title are being scanned into electronic format. Already a great effort is underway, through the Internet Archive Project (http://www.archive.org/). Books whose copyrights have expired (published before 1923) are free game for scanning, and encompass many of the world's rarest and well-known books. Some 44,000 books have already been scanned, dating back as far as 1475 (STORY). The Library of Congress has a similar program for its old books.

I like curling up with a good book, feeling the texture, smelling musty binding, and hearing the subtle slide of the pages. But modern books are being published electronically, in the form of eBooks. eBooks and eBook readers are still progressing, and I'd be willing to try them out. Consider the Sony Reader, for instance (HERE). It's a slim, lightweight computer pad similar to the little readers used in Star Trek, which reads not only eBooks, but also pdf files, Word documents, internet, and has a built-in mp3 player. It has a non-glare screen, and the digital book pages have the same appearance as a real page, with an off-white background. And it holds something like 80 books, with tens of thousands of titles you can download. Of course, you have to shell out $300 (after rebate), plus between $4 and $14 per digital book. Who the hell has that kind of money? No wonder I've never actually seen someone reading one.

But is the demise of the printed word really a bad thing? After all, by being electronic, it becomes accessible to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world. It is searchable, so you can more quickly find the information you need in it. Thousands of titles can be saved on your standard home computer. And you can save it in any number of formats.

But as I've mentioned in a previous post (HERE), I worry that digital formats won't last as long as printed formats, due to changing technologies and corrupted data. Consider the Dead Sea Scrolls. Despite 1900 years of being buried in caves, they were still mostly legible (after careful piecing together and preservation). Could the same be expected of computer files? Will some archaeologist 1900 years from now pull my hard drive out of the dirt and be able to translate my digitally-stored blog posts? I don't think so. I weep at the possibility that my enlightened wisdom, which you have the glorious honor of reading, may not be shared with my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren, like the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls can now claim.

Well, I think printed books are going to stick around a while longer, but not forever. Records were supplanted by tapes, then CDs, then mp3 files. Incandescent bulbs are slowly being replaced by fluorescent bulbs. Books replaced papyrus and velum. Now it is the book's turn to fade into history.

I have to admit, due to my work load, parenting responsibilities, and various other interests (like writing this blog!), I simply don't have the time to read for pleasure anymore. But I miss it, and I long to curl up in a comfy chair and read for hours. I'm embarrassed to say it, but the last time I read a book for pleasure, all the way through, was over a year ago. My reading list keeps growing longer. Ah, some day….

When was the last time you read a book for pleasure?


Anonymous said...

Last time I read a book for fun? Hmmm...last week! Took "Boomsday" by Christopher Buckley with me on a business trip. Got done with 1/2 on the flight there, the rest on the flight back...then craved more reading! I am a book addict, so I read during breakfast and lunch. Wish I could do it after the kids go to bed, but I'm usually working (we freelance medical writers have to work when the house is quiet, so that means during school hours and late into the night).

Try taking a book with you in the briefcase. It is amazing how many minutes you can grab while waiting in line, heating up lunch in the microwave, sitting while your work is printing, visiting the bank, sitting in stopped traffic!


Lila said...

Luckily, I read for pleasure every day when i'm riding on the train and then shuttle. That is the biggest perk I find about commuting to and from work :-) I think I have been getting even more reading done than than when i was in school.

Angry Lab Rat said...

I'm jealous!

Lauso said...

Right now I am reading a great book about photography and have a couple others to curl with in the next weeks. It hadn't been like that for a long time after I started my PhD, but sometime ago I decided I would have a life again and I am managing surprisingly well the reading of papers and books.