My last post dealt with the question I’m often asked of why we still need independent bookstores. Another question that often comes up when discussing my goal of opening a bookstore is equally alarming: “Do we really still need books?” In this instance, however, the question is deceiving, because invariably what the person means is do we still need printed books. Following the “success” of Amazon’s Kindle and copycat readers from the other members of the Axis of Evil (Borders and Barnes and Noble), barely a day has gone by without some media genius proclaiming the end of books on paper within the next 10 years.
But does this increase in the sales of e-readers and e-books really mean the demise of the printed book? In a word: no. One thing must always be remembered about the Kindle (and any other e-book reader): it is first and foremost an electronic gadget. Tech-craving consumers will buy anything new that will connect to the Internet. However, the fact that these same consumers will discard a perfectly good cell phone simply because a new version appears six months later should put the recent appeal of the Kindle in its proper perspective.
Both the manufacturers of e-readers (and the legion of people who bought them as gifts last Christmas, which was when the first sales spike occurred) assume that if books are offered in the same format as every other form of media, then people will automatically prefer that method. However, this is simply not the case. Games, social networking sites, and even to a degree newspapers are a good fit for computers, cell phones, and other hand-held devices; books are not, for several reasons:
1. Printed books provide a tactile experience. Music is heard, and films are both seen and heard, but books are experienced both visually and by touch. There is an aspect to the feel of books (the smooth glossy cover, the roughness and even smell of the paper) that provides a physical sensation that is both separate from and intimately linked to the story you are reading. We bond not only with the author (novels being the only art form that requires many hours of commitment on the part of the audience) but with the book itself.
2. Great novels, from War and Peace to The Shadow of the Wind were not meant to be read on a digital screen, no matter how much “like paper” they try to make that screen. Most of us spend our entire workday staring at a computer screen, plus additional hours in front of a computer or television after we get home. The last thing most readers want to do is spend even more time staring at a screen.
3. Books can be written in, dog-eared, loaned to friends, stuffed in your back pocket, browsed for on rainy afternoons, and then sold to a used bookshop for cash to buy yet more books. Try that with a Kindle.
4. Most readers (and we have always been remarkably few as percentage of the total population) like having a personal library. It may or may not contain highly collectible items like a signed Hemingway or first-edition Faulkner, but a bookcase loaded with books can be much more than a simple collection. It can serve as a timeline of our lives: the copy of Homer you read in the same college class as your future wife, that Robert Parker Spenser novel you read in the hospital waiting for your son to be born, that copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets you read to your daughters over a snowy weekend, and that biography of Maugham you discovered in a cool little shop in London. These are books you pass down through generations, even though they may have value only within the context of your own family. Once again, you can’t do that with an e-reader. The books in a Kindle don’t even exist except as bits of binary code.
Finally, we need only look to our own history to see that printed books will always find a way to survive. Books have weathered far greater threats than the Kindle for over 100 years. The book's demise was first predicted with the advent of radio, then with the arrival of motion pictures, television, video games, and finally the Internet and the iPad age. It was even thought that the launch of Penguin Publishing's paperback book line in 1935 would quickly spell the end of hardcover books; 75 years later hardcovers are still around. And given our attention span with gadgets in general, I think that printed books are quite safe.