Books: The thing that wouldn't die

Did you see the numbers for e-reader sales for last year, particularly the ones for the fourth quarter, as Christmas approached?

Have you heard that eBook sales of bestsellers have been beating physical book numbers in the new year?

Are you sick to fucking death of endless tastemaker proclamations, manufacturer projections and tech-blog suppositions heralding the death of the printed book? You know, the ones that range in expression from "BOOKS ARE DEAD" to "ARE BOOKS DEAD?"


If you're a dedicated devourer of the printed word, you've likely been having conversations and arguments about the medium's demise in general for more than a decade now, and about the eradication of the long-form book in particular for nearly half that long. I remember a conversation with a friend at New World Brewery a couple of years ago about my own reticence to buy an e-reader, during which a woman at the next table politely weighed in about her own love for her Kindle. When I asked her if reading a novel on an electronic device was the same as reading a book, she told me that it took a little getting used to, but she quickly fell in love with the experience.

We agreed that the idea of physical books disappearing was ridiculous.

I'm a gadget freak, but I've also retained a certain reverence for the experience of cracking open a book and losing myself in its pages, and the worlds they contain. Eventually, though, I acceded to the pointlessness of taking a firm stance on one side or the other, and put in my order last fall with Santa Wife.

Purely for the sake of experimentation, of course.

So I've had my e-reader for nearly two months now, and naturally I'm a total convert. It took, like, four days of fiddling with the thing to forget that I wasn't invoking the sacred rite of "cracking open a book and losing myself in its pages" (quotes mine, because I just said it, right up there), and realize that an e-reader is a handy, convenient and unobtrusive way to enjoy a good book. More importantly, it's an easy way to carry hundreds of books around with me without, you know, carrying hundreds of books around with me.

But that doesn't mean I think the book is dead, because THE BOOK WILL NEVER DIE.

The idea is ludicrous for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, throughout history, few media for creative expression have ever completely disappeared. People still paint, and shoot movies using Super 8 cameras. Boutique sales of vinyl records are on the rise, and bands still put out music on cassettes, despite the dwindling availability of tape players. And unlike books, those media require obsolete third-party technology to enjoy; books are self-contained. Ironically, the existence of books is ensured by the endless evolution of cutting-edge consumption avenues — nobody knows if the current formats will be read by the machines of the future, but everybody knows that folks with a passion for literature and a decent command of language will be able to get something out of physical pages.

Yes, sales of physical books will continue to decline as more and more readers avail themselves of the perks of e-readers. Yes, publishers will have to move quickly to adjust to a changing landscape, and most likely accept the fact that their per-product profit margin is going to drop. "Mass market" might disappear completely; who knows at this point?

But no matter what happens with eBooks, there will always be a market for hardback books, trade paperbacks, limited editions and the like. THE BOOK WILL NEVER DIE.


It's just a disappointing occurrence of culture, media and human nature that a headline like "BOOKS ARE DEAD" plays better than "ENTIRE INDUSTRY CHOKING ON OWN HUBRIS, WAVES OFF HEIMLICH, PREFERS DELUSION OR DEATH."

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