Sunday, October 15, 2006

Books as an Endangered Species

If you're a book person, and that seems a fair guess, you've probably had the conversation yourself. Is the book an endangered species? Your kids, if you have kids, will probably say, Duh. Your mother or grandmother will probably say, Impossible!

Well, define your terms. It doesn't seem likely that we will learn to live without long prose pieces, either fiction or non-fiction. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, in which books are banned AFTER the general population loses interest in them, seems quite unconvincing in that respect. We need stories, we need interpretation, we need instruction.

But books as objects? Assemblages of paper pages between paper/cardboard/cloth covers? There the future looks dicier. Given the pace of technological change, and particularly in information storage and retrieval, can books really survive? Look at recorded music--three major format changes in three decades.

Granted, books have shown amazing durability. How many other medieval inventions are still with us? The materials and the production methods have changed, certainly, but in form and function the book is still essentially what it was a millenium ago. And it's survived numerous challenges--movies, television, audiobooks, and (so far at least) electronic books.

I have to think, though, that some bright and unsentimental soul is going to find the silver bullet that kills the book... something as rich, as authoritative, as convenient, as flexible, as comfortable, as inexpensive as the book--or maybe just a little more so. My guess is that the key factor will be access--it'll be a device that gives the reader access to a huge array of literature with minimal trouble and minimal cost, sort of an IPOD for books.

And really, though I hate to say it (particularly since I make a living as a bookseller), it's OK. There is nothing sacrosanct about the book as object. It's not that I'm immune to the appeal--witness this snippet from my story First State (the tale of a struggling book scout):

Books are stunning even if you only take them as material objects: the rough feel of good paper, the play of light and shadow in a Fred Marcellino jacket illustration, the noiseless power of a solid binding, the smells of resin and ink and dust... the heraldic quality of publishers' logos: Knopf (an elegant running dog), Scribner (a lamp, the kind that holds genies), Pocket (a kangaroo), Bantam (a rooster), Harper & Row (a torch).

But in the end, for me, the important part of a book's appeal is this (snippet #2 from First State):

...the magic of knowing that someone poured his or her soul into the pages you're holding; you can just flip a book open and get the benefit of everything a writer learned, everything he or she went through.

That magic, fortunately or unfortunately, is there regardless of format. Whether you're reading an e-Book, an Ace paperback, or a roll of scribbled-on TP, the words are what it's about.

I don't imagine that printed books will ever disappear entirely. They'll become like horses--no longer the most effective at what they do, but still aesthetically pleasing and a charming reminder of the past. Connoisseurs will still treasure them, collectors will still hoard them, rich people will still flaunt them as status symbols. And people like us, who grew up with them and spent our lives working with them, will be be sad about their passing, but perhaps it will be gradual enough to be relatively painless. That, or we'll be too busy trying to keep our own selves from being replaced by superior technology to give much thought to the fate of our books.