The Death of the Book

People love to talk about the death of whatever — the book, or history, or Nature, or God, or authentic Cajun cuisine. Eschatologically-minded people do, anyhow.

After I wrote that, I felt pleased with myself, but uneasy. I went and looked up eschatological. I knew it didn’t mean what scatological means, even though they sound exactly alike except eschatological has one more syllable, but I thought it had to do only with death. I didn’t realise it concerns not one thing but The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. If it included scatology too, it would be practically the whole ball of wax.

Anyhow, the eschatologists’ judgment is that the book is going to die and go to heaven or hell, leaving us to the mercy of Hollywood and our computer screens.


There certainly is something sick about the book industry, but it seems closely related to the sickness affecting every industry that, under pressure from a corporate owner, dumps product standards and long-range planning in favor of ‘predictable’ sales and short-term profits.

As for books themselves, the changes in book technology are cataclysmic. Yet it seems to me that rather than dying, “the book” is growing — taking on a second form and shape, the ebook.

This is a vast, unplanned change that’s as confusing, uncomfortable, and destructive as most unplanned changes. Certainly it’s putting huge strain on all the familiar channels of book publication and acquisition, from the publishers, distributors, book stores, and libraries, to the reader who’s afraid that the latest best seller, or perhaps all literature, will suddenly pass him by if he doesn’t rush out and buy an electronic device to read it on.

But that’s it, isn’t it? — that’s what books are about — reading?

Is reading obsolete, is the reader dead?

Dear reader: How are you doing? I am fairly obsolete, but by no means, at the moment, dead.

Dear reader: Are you reading at this moment? I am, because I’m writing this, and it’s very hard to write without reading, as you know if you ever tried it in the dark.

Dear reader: What are you reading on? I’m writing and reading on my computer, as I imagine you are. (At least, I hope you’re reading what I’m writing, and aren’t writing “What Tosh!” in the margin. Though I’ve always wanted to write “What Tosh!” in a margin ever since I read it years ago in the margin of a library book. It was such a good description of the book.)

Reading is undeniably one of the things people do on the computer. And also, on the various electronic devices that are capable of and may be looked upon as “for” telephoning, taking photographs, playing music and games, etc, people may spend a good while texting sweetiepie, or looking up recipes for authentic Cajun gumbo, or checking out the stock report — all of which involve reading. People use computers to play games or wander through picture galleries or watch movies, and to do computations and make spreadsheets and pie charts, and a few lucky ones get to draw pictures or compose music, and so on, but mostly, am I wrong? isn’t an awful lot of what people do with computers either word-processing (writing) or processing words (reading)?

How much of anything can you do in the e-world without reading? The use of any computer above the toddler-entertainment level is dependent on at least some literacy in the user. Operations can be learned mechanically, but still, the main element of a keyboard is letters, and icons take you only so far. Texting may have replaced all other forms of verbality for some people, but texting is just a primitive form of writing: you can’t do it unless you no u frm i, lol.

It looks to me as if people are in fact reading and writing more than they ever did. People who used to work and talk together now work each alone in a cubicle, writing and reading all day long on screen. Communication that used to be oral, face to face or on the telephone, is now written, emailed, and read.

None of that has much to do with book-reading, true; yet it’s hard for me to see how the death of the book is to result from the overwhelming prevalence of a technology that makes reading a more invaluable skill than it ever was.

Ah, say the eschatologists, but it’s competition from the wondrous, endless everything-else-you-can-do-on-your-iPad — competition is murdering the book!

Could be. Or it might just make readers more discriminating. A recent article in the NY Times (“Finding Your Book Interrupted … By the Tablet You Read It On” by Julie Bosman and Matt Richtel, March 4, 2012) quoted a woman in Los Angeles: “With so many distractions, my taste in books has really leveled up…. Recently, I gravitate to books that make me forget I have a world of entertainment at my fingertips. If the book’s not good enough to do that, I guess my time is better spent.” Her sentence ends oddly, but I think it means that she prefers reading an entertaining book to activating the world of entertainment with her fingertips. Why does she not consider books part of this world of entertainment? Maybe because the book, even when activated by her fingertips, entertains her without the moving, flickering, twitching, jumping, glittering, shouting, thumping, bellowing, screaming, blood-spattering, ear-splitting, etc, that we’ve been led to identify as entertainment. In any case, her point is clear: if a book’s not as entertaining — on some level, not necessarily the same level — as the jumping, thumping, bleeding, etc, then why read it? Either activate the etc, or find a better book. As she puts it, level up.


When we hear about the death of the book, it might be a good idea to ask what “the book” is. Are we talking about people ceasing to read books, or about what they read the books on — paper or a screen?

Reading on a screen is certainly different from reading a page. I don’t think we yet understand what the differences are. They may be considerable, but I doubt that they’re so great as to justify giving the two kinds of reading different names, or saying that an ebook isn’t a book at all.

If “the book” means only the book as physical object, its death, to some devotees of the Internet, may be a matter for rejoicing — hurray! we’re rid of another nasty heavy bodily Thing with a copyright on it! — But mostly it’s the occasion of lament and mourning. People to whom the pysicality of the book printed on paper is important, sometimes more important than the contents — those who value them for their binding, paper, and typography, buy fine editions, make collections — and the many who simply take pleasure in holding and handling the book they’re reading, are naturally distressed by the idea that the book on paper will be totally replaced by the immaterial text in a machine.

I can only suggest, don’t agonize — organize! No matter how the corporations bluster and bully and bury us in advertising, the consumer always has the option of resistance. We don’t get steamrollered by a new technology unless we lie down in front of the the steamroller.

The steamroller is certainly on the move. Some kinds of printed book are already being replaced by e-books. The mass market paperback edition is threatened by the low-cost e-book edition. Good news for those who like to read on a screen, bad news for those who don’t, or like to buy from Abebooks and A-libris or to pounce on 75-cent beat-up secondhand mysteries. But if the lovers of the material book are serious about valuing good binding and paper and design as essential to their reading pleasure, they will provide a visible, steady market for well-made hard-cover and paperback editions: which the book industry, if it has the sense of a sowbug, will meet. The question is whether the book industry does have the sense of a sowbug. Some of its behavior lately leads one to doubt. But let us hope. And there’s always the “small publisher,” the corporation-free independent, many of which are as canny as can be.


Other outcries about the death of the book have more to do with the direct competition with reading offered on the Internet. The book is being murdered by the etc at our fingertips.

Here “the book” usually refers to literature. At the moment, I thik the DIY manual, or the cookbook, the guide to this or that, are the kinds of book most often replaced by information on a screen. The Encyclopedia Britannica just died, a victim, as it were, of Google. I don’t think I’ll bury our Eleventh Edition just yet, though; the information in it, being a product of its time (a hundred years ago), can be valuably different from that furnished by the search engine, which is also a product of its time. The annual encyclopedias of films/directors/actors were killed a few years ago by information sites on the Net — very good sites, though not as much fun to get lost in as the book was. We keep our 2003 edition because being outselves ancient, we use it more efficiently than we do any site, and it’s still useful and entertaining even if dead — more than you can say of the corpse of almost anything but a book.

I’m not sure why anyone, no matter how much they like to think about the End Times, believes that the Iliad or Jane Eyre or the Bhagavad Gita is dead or about to die. They have far more competition than they used to, yes; people may see the movie and think they know what the book is; they can be displaced by the etc; but nothing can replace them. So long as people are taught to read (which may or may not happen in our underfunded schools), and particularly if they’re taught what there is to read, and how to read it intelligently (extensions of the basic skill now often omitted in our underfunded schools), some of them will prefer reading to activating the etc. They will read books (on paper or on a screen) as literature.

And they will try to ensure that the books continue to exist, because continuity is an essential aspect of literature and knowledge. Books occupy time in a different way than most art and entertainment. In longevity perhaps only sculpture in stone outdoes them.

And here the issue of electronic and print on paper has to re-enter the discussion. On the permanence of what is in books, much of the lasting transmission of human culture still relies. It’s possible that highest and most urgent value of the printed book may be its mere, solid, stolid permanence.

I’ll be talking now not about “the book” in America in 2012 so much as about how things are all over the world in the many places where electricity may be available only to the rich, or intermittent, or non-existent; and how things may be in fifty years or five centuries, if we continue to degrade and destroy our habitat at the present rate.

The ease of reproducing an ebook and sending it all over the place can certainly secure its permanence, so long as the machine to read it on can be made and turned on. I think it’s well to remember, though, that electric power is not to be counted on in quite the same way sunlight is.

Easy and infinite copiability also involves a certain risk. The text of the book on paper can’t be altered without separately and individually altering every copy in existence, and alteration leaves unmistakable traces. With e-texts that have been altered, deliberately or by corruption (pirated texts are often incredibly corrupt), if the author is dead, establishing an original, authentic, correct text may be impossible. And the more piracies, abridgments, mash-ups, etc are tolerated, the less people will understand that textual integrity matters.

People to whom texts matter, such as readers of poetry or scientific monographs, know that the integrity of the text is essential. Our non-literate ancestors knew it. The three-year-old being read to demands it. You must recite the words of the poem exactly as you learned them or it will lose its power. — Daddy! You read it wrong! It says “did not” not “didn’t!”

The physical book may last for centuries; even a cheap paperback on pulp paper takes decades to degrade into unreadability. Continuous changes of technology, upgrades, corporate takeovers, leave behind them a debris of texts unreadable on any available machine. And an e-text has to be periodically recopied to keep it from degrading. People who archive them are reluctant to say how often, because it varies a great deal; but as anyone with email files over a few years old knows, the progress into entropy can be rapid. A university librarian told me that, as things are now, they expect to recopy every electronic text the library owns, every eight to ten years, indefinitely.

If we decided to replace the content of our libraries entirely with electronic archives, at this stage of the technology, a worst-case scenario would have informational and literary texts being altered without our consent or knowledge, reproduced or destroyed without our permission, rendered unreadable by the technology that printed them, and, unless regularly recopied and redistributed, fated within a few years or decades to turn inexorably into garble or simply blink out of existence.

But that’s assuming the technology won’t improve and stabilize. In any case, why should we go into either/or mode? It’s seldom necessary and often destructive (look at Congress.)

Maybe the e-reader and the electricity to run it will become available to everyone forever. That would be grand. But as things are or are likely to be, having books available in two different forms can only be a good thing, now and in the long run.

I do believe that, despite the temptations at our fingertips, there’s an obstinate, durable minority of people who, having learned to read, will go on reading books, however and wherever they can find them, on pages or screens. And because people who read books mostly want to share them, and feel however obscurely that sharing them is important, they’ll see to it that, however and wherever, the books are there for the next generation(s).

Human generations, that is — not technological generations. At the moment, the computer generation has shortened to about the life span of the gerbil, and might yet rival the fruitfly.

The life span of a book is more like that of the horse, or the human being, sometimes the oak, even the redwood. Which is why it seems a good idea, rather than mourning their death, to rejoice that books now have two ways of staying alive, getting passed on, enduring, instead of only one.

25 March 2012