When travelling recently I had the strongest sense that unlike dinosaurs physical books would always be around—that they would always have a place. Sure they have their own version of the meteorite—e-books, vooks, audiobooks and all things electronic and wordy that have been showering the earth for the last decade—but I think so far, they have proven resilient and fill a niche even in this new digital age we find ourselves in.
A few cities I visited in the States epitomised the move in our culture toward instant gratification. New York City for me was one of them. You can get and do whatever you want whenever you want. It was also a place where traditional print books were everywhere I looked. People had their faces buried in them on the subway, on the bus, at cafes, in malls, elevators and parks. There were book swap letterboxes on the sidewalk, amazing bookstores and of course the breathtakingly beautiful New York Public Library.
In a world where everyone is speculating on the future of the book and their viability in an environment where our consumption of the medium has changed, I found this very comforting. It reinforced my belief that printed books will always be around. I think most people agree with this.
When you really take a look at evolution you realise it is less like those linear progressions they depict in diagrams—you know, common ape ancestor becoming less Quasimodo and more upright till, incrementally they transform into homo sapiens—and more like an ever growing (Phylogenetic—don’t you just love this word?) tree with untold potential for new limbs to generate. And sure, the whole idea of evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’ is that some species do die out, but overall the result is variety and abundance of life.
So what is it about printed books that allows them to survive?
- They are physically beautiful. Books not only present art, but in a sense their physical from is art. A sculpture and a frame for photography or painting or sketching, which may be used as the book’s cover art. Books carry forth the art of words and also have the potential to be completely focused on images.
- Books invoke nostalgia. When you pick up a well-loved book it’s the feel, the weight and the smell that invokes another time or moment as much as the story. No other book medium can reproduce this physical experience. In 2012, PBS website MediaShift asked a group of book lovers if they preferred printed or electronic books. Many of those who preferred printed books justified their choice with comments that indicated a nostalgia invoked by the physical object itself.
- E-books are not simply a better format replacing one that is inferior. They are actually creating a new and unique experience. This experience can therefore coincide with the old traditional one.
- Printed books carry memories and maintain connections with the past. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, author Joe Queenan said; “Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.”
- Physical books are collectable and having the printed version on your shelf is akin to having an artwork from your favourite painter. They have a value an e-book will never possess whether it is simply sentimental because of who gave it to you, the fact that you had the author sign it or indeed monetary—if you possess the a first edition copy etc.
Competition for resources
The real thing to think about when dealing with evolution is the access to resources, and, in the case of print books and e-books they are in direct competition for the same things—the time and money of the reader, writer and the publisher. This is the sole factor which will drive the growth and change of both mediums with the most successful species exceling in a given area. On one hand print books will have to work a little harder to maintain their space on the shelf while e-books will offer readers value and better utility.
For me, because of space, time and financial reasons, I’ll usually read an e-book or listen to an audiobook first and if I love it I buy the hard copy. I don’t believe there is a choice between e-books and printed books—that one must die for the other to flourish—because I want to live in a world with both.
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Do you think physical books will go the way of the dinosaurs? What is your experience with e-books and audiobooks?