Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Future of Books

Faced with my moving to a new address and a downgrade to a room as tiny as a smaller walk-in closet, I have seriously started contemplating the amount of stuff I have to accommodate. Travelling light is out of the question for a simple reason- for the past years I have hoarded books like there was no tomorrow. Yes, I can live out of a suitcase without problems, but I have two more, heavier than I am myself, full of books (And I already gave up on magazines). Needless to say, those are only the ones I have collected since moving to the UK and there is more. What now?

There is a solution- although a temporary one at best, but for me the only imaginable- I can hire a company to ship my mini library back to Slovakia for a fair price. But as I said, this just delays the solution to the real problem, which is- what to do with all these books? Not that I am so keen to get rid of them. After all, they reflect all my major interests in life, all the stages in my intellectual development- including the dumbing down phases, all my relationships etc. I have an emotional attachment to them. Some people can tell you what they wore the day they first met their spouse, well I could probably tell you what I was reading. (If I were married that is.) And I won’t even mention schoolbooks...

I am a bibliophile. When I buy a book, I am really picky. I would rather pay more for a nicer cover, I like to have the choice between hardcover and paperback and I simply love the possibility of buying older or newer editions. I like carrying books around all the time, marking interesting passages and making notes. I like to touch them, hell; I even like how they smell. But there in the midst of moving boxes, bags and piles I have found myself contemplating the future of this habit of mine. Even with my soft spot for paper books I was getting more curious about e-books, Kindle, iPads and Nooks if only for their practicality. Until I realised that they are not practical at all.

Theoretically, they could solve my storage problem; it’s just that they don’t. To see how much room I would manage to save if I changed to e-books I tried to look up the books I have listed on my Amazon wish list to check their availability in e-book format. Out of some 40+ books, none is available on iBooks or for Kindle. Not a single one! How is that possible? First of all they are no bestsellers, in fact only a few are fiction. So until at least the majority of books in my list is available, e-books are not really interesting for me. Also some of these are intended as study books- both iPads and Kindles are entirely useless for that purpose. Multitasking on the iPad is impossible; you don’t have the option to write and read at the same time, there is no usb etc. So let’s say I need to write an essay on anything other than the fresh new trendy author, I will have to use a paper book anyway and most probably I will have to write it on my computer. That sucks.

Speaking of computers, I love mine. But even if it is really easy to use it for writing, I still use a Moleskine and a pen. So even if I do save a lot of paper by writing on the computer, it still didn’t make paper notebooks obsolete. Let’s face it, even if we discard every sentimental and romantic argument for paper books, we still live in a world, where one of the first things we learn to use are pens and paper. We learn to write by hand and we learn to draw. It is no surprise that paper and pen are more natural to us than a keyboard and a screen. Also one cannot help but perceive computer files as somehow more fragile even illusory than a sheet of paper or a book. A book has physical attributes that computer files do not have and we tend to underestimate this elusive quality ever so often, when we fail to back up our files.

Remember how people thought Amazon would cause the death of the bookshop? (Even though some would have deserved it.) Just like LPs survive among iPods and mp3s, e-books will not make paper books extinct. Even if their sales will go down due to Kindle & co. at first, I think – and I am not the first one to come to this conclusion - that it will simply change the way paper books are perceived; from a common item to a more luxurious and exclusive one, because producing a cheap book is still more expensive than producing e-books. But who would want to get an e-book as a Christmas gift? Wouldn’t it feel like getting an email instead of a postcard? Or can you imagine a priest in church reciting psalms from an iPad? (To be fair, this is more due to the nature of religions and their special reverence for their holy books.) So paper books might become less disposable, even more expensive, but I don’t think they are going to disappear any time soon. A car might be the best way to travel individually, but it is still nothing compared to a horseback ride across the fields.

To sum it up neatly: Lately there are new articles every day prophesising the death of paper books and some have already began to mourn their demise. The pros and contras of e-books have been discussed ad nauseam (with my little contribution now), the arguments on both sides have become rather dull and repetitive and things have not moved quickly enough to signal a victory for either one side. Books are being printed and iPads, Kindles and Nooks are getting produced and sold. Literature survives. End of story.

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