The sun is starting to set on the golden age of the printed book.
The number of book titles published may well continue its yearly increase, but the total number of printed copies of all those titles has already begun to diminish. Partly this is due to the dysfunctional Potlatch economics that book publishers and bookstores have been mired in since the Depression.
Excess copies of books are intentionally printed, so they can be stacked high in stores in the hopes of forcing publishing success. This is followed by an expensive retreat of millions of books to the pulp mill. Our present hard times are delivering punishing body blows to this untenable model. But the truly decisive factor in hastening the end of the era of printed books is electronic books.
Ripping the paper handcuffs…
The digitization of books, together with the proliferation of electronic-book readers, will be a boon for readers—much as digital photography has been a boon for photographers. Imagine combining what we love about books with what we love about computers. Books will finally be freed from the paper handcuffs they’ve been shackled with for a millennium.
In not too many years hence, electronic books will be utterly irresistible. We will sit around on porches (or the virtual equivalent), shaking our heads and saying, “Can you imagine when all our books had to be printed? Unbelievable...”
But as with nearly all progress, we will lose a few things along the way. We will lose the physical evidence that a particular book has been read by a particular person.
…but holding on to what’s real
For the most part, losing this physical evidence won’t matter. The best part of reading is what is left inside us. We absorb the books we read into our beliefs and memories and feelings. The accumulated result lingers, we hope, as some kind of wisdom. This is true whether we absorb the book in print form with our eyes, or listen to it as an audiobook, or read it on an electronic device.
Moreover, we now have entrancing digital representations of our personal libraries in which we can assemble and visit colorful images of our books, read our reviews and add to them, remind ourselves of our ratings and modify them, see what others say about the books on our virtual bookshelves, and have a dialog with those readers.
My own virtual library, existing somewhere in the cloud, is an aspect of 21st century reading I now jealously embrace and would not be without. As I write this in the year 2009, it still seems miraculous to me that a slim electronic device will soon contain all the books I have read in my lifetime, along with my quirky, annotated record of having read them.
But having been born during halftime of the 20th century (in the 1950s), I’m old enough to want to be surrounded by old fashioned books—real books, firm of spine and fluttery of pages.
Inside my paper books (which happen to surround me at this moment, since I’m writing in my home library) are my signatures, the dates I began and finished, where I was reading, a boarding pass or train ticket, a newspaper review, a clipped obituary on the author.
Pages are marked and passages underlined. Nestled inside my dust jackets are printouts of email exchanges with friends who recommended the book, and occasionally correspondence with the author.
This old library delivers delights to me. I pull a book from its shelf and feel again the ephemera and favorite passages I would have forgotten.
Footprints in the reading sands of time
A few years ago I asked Levenger customers whether they wrote, or didn’t write, in their books. We received over 2,000 responses to what we learned was a most provocative question.
Responses were about 60/40 in favor of those who write (whom I call Footprint Leavers) vs. those who refrain (Preservationists). Passions run high in both camps, and curiously, both groups justify their positions in the same way: their love of books.
Footprint Leavers want to show their love with love letters in the margin, while Preservationists show their love through abstinence, leaving their books pure as the driven snow.
I make no attempt to hide my own position on this topic. I am a card-carrying, foot-stomping Footprint Leaver. A few years ago I was tolerant in my view toward Preservationists, and even praised them for their contribution to the thriving used-book market, from which I have purchased hundreds of books myself.
But today, with the flood tide of electronic books soon upon us, I’ve changed my mind.
Now I think that if you have children or other loved ones who will someday inherit your books, you should write in them now. No matter how strongly you may lean on the side of the Preservationists, you need to know this: your handwriting inside your books may be their passport to preservation.
Life: affirming, in the margins
Marginalia has proved pivotally important in scholarship. Dr. Will Provine, professor of history of science at Cornell, has traced the history of evolution by reading the marginal notes of scientists in their journals and books. Owen Gingerich, professor of the history of science at Harvard, traced the surprising truth about Copernicus’s impact on astronomy through the handwriting in hundreds of copies of his De revolutionibus.
Historians of this century will likely rue the advent of electronic books, as historians of the 20th century rued the telephone and how it sucked into black oblivion human exchanges that were previously immortalized in letters.
Sometimes the accidental and ancillary end up being more important than what people assumed would be important. A photo of the Grand Canyon from the 1920s is of marginal interest today—unless there happens to be a vintage artifact in the frame.
Archeologists can often extract more information from an ancient civilization’s trash piles than from its monuments. The wine stains and incidental writing in the Sarajevo Haggadah are part of what makes it so valuable today.
Your writing is what will make your books cherished artifacts to your descendants. For you don’t have to be Copernicus or Darwin to be important. We are all famous to our descendants.
At a fundraising luncheon last week, I was sitting at a table with Nancy Hurd, something of a legend in our town due to her 40 years of running Delray’s care center for children of the working poor. She told me about the one thing she treasures most from her father. He served in the Philippines during World War II. When he arrived, the Army gave him and the other soldiers a black leatherbound Bible.
“My father was a man of faith. He kept the Bible with him throughout the war, then brought it home. When he passed away almost 60 years later, my mother asked me what I might want to have of his as a keepsake. I asked for his Bible,” Nancy said.
“He had only written his name in it, but I know it had given him comfort at a time when he was alone and probably scared. He had faithfully served his country, put his life on the line, and this holy book had been his companion. I treasure it to this day.”
Our bright future with books
In a flash, electronic books will be as commonplace as laptops and cell phones—and they will be wonderful. They will transform reading in ways hard for us to grasp today.
Today’s young people will think electronic books are normal, because they will be, and children will be curious about the old paper books, as we are curious when seeing Edison cylinders and stereoscopes.
And yet to this day, we still use another Edison invention called the light bulb. Paper books will continue to shine a bright light, but with a different focus.
I believe high-quality printed books will be produced for a very long time. It’s the common hardcover, which does nothing more in its physical state than show printed text, that might be improved upon by being a living, digital book. The new digital books will put pressure on paper books to be better than ever before and to lead with their strengths—luscious paper, imaginative fonts, luxuriously large pages, textures. (In our own line of Levenger Press books, we aim just for such high touch.)
Seize the day (and the paper)
So today, dear reader, when paper books are plentiful and pens abound and we still know how to write by hand, strut your stuff. Use your books as you would a journal.
Where it might be most important of all is with children’s paper books. My guess is that their large format and vivid color will take awhile for the machines to better. But in time they, too, will succumb to the advantages of electronics.
So when you read a children’s book to a loved one, have the child write his or her name and age, write yours (at least your name), write what you feel at that moment, what your young reader said about the book, the date and time and place. A generation or two from now, your little reading companion may cherish that printed book more than we might imagine.
It’s human nature to take good things for granted and not to value something until it is gone. Seize the paper book, seize your pen, seize your own ability to write with your own hand. As they say in Spain, Hay mas tiempo que vida—there is more time than life.
And now tell me, dear reader: What have you inherited in the margin? And what do you want to leave for younger eyes? Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you’ll connect to Comments).