The End of Books as We Know It

June 9, 2010

Sunday afternoon, in between church services, I found some time to read The Chicago Tribune which we have delivered faithfully every Sunday. Yes, I still read the “dead-tree” version. Even though I read most of my content online, there is still something special about opening the newspaper.

I read with great interest Julia Keller’s column on the end of books. It was a special column leading up to the Chicago Printer’s Row Book fair. A key thought was this:

A friend of mine in her early 20s managed to poke a finger through the tissue-thin argument that iPads, Kindles and Nooks are just as good as books, that reading is reading, that content is all that matters.

She and her classmates at the University of Notre Dame were invited to the home of a revered professor. It was a gleaming palace of erudition, she said: Room after room was filled with elegant floor-to-ceiling bookcases; each bookcase was filled with beautiful volumes; each volume seemed to glow with the written legacy of the world’s wisdom.

It was, she recalled, breathtaking.

Reveling in all of this, my friend had a sudden, unsettling thought: What if, instead of the soaring bookcases, the professor’s home had featured a card table with a Kindle on it?

The content might be the same — vast storage capacity is one of the chief selling points of new technologies — but how different it would be in terms of spiritual sustenance.

That last sequence stuck with me. I’m a huge fan of technology and love the idea that you can download books, etc. I think technology has actually promoted reading. People probably ingest more content now than they have in decades, with blogs, news sites, rss feeds, etc.

But nothing will replace a library with books. There is something wonderful about a room full of books. I can’t imagine future generations will walk into an austere room filled with screens. I have to imagine we will still produce books with spines. That the thriving cottage industry of used books and valuable first editions will continue. That we’ll still dog-ear favorites and pass them to loved ones with notes in the front.

Sure, the delivery method will change, the printing process will be more efficient, and perhaps we’ll publish less books–some whole genres will be extinct, like the encyclopedia or the cookbook or the dictionary.

But books? I think they’ll be here forever.