August 2, 2012 | 10:13 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
The latest visionary to predict the end of the printed book is David A. Bell in “The Bookless Library,” a compelling if also alarming article that appears in the August 2, 2012, issue of The New Republic. Libraries, like bookstores, are facing “the prospect of obsolescence,” he writes, and the role of the library is being fundamentally redefined in the digital age: “t is foolish to think that libraries can remain the same with the new technology on the scene.” He points out, for example, that Yale University library recently trashed its entire card catalogue in favor of a digital version, and he asks: “How many will be troubled, twenty years hence, by the disappearance of the physical books?”
We’ve heard these dire prophecies many times before, of course, but the digital doomsayers are being proven to be mostly right. Only last week, I replaced the printed editions of four reference works that I use in my law practice with a digital subscription to Westlaw, a vast online database of legal resources. And it was years ago that I stopped using my dusty print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in favor of the online edition. For some purposes — and research is one of them — an electronic book is clearly more useful than a printed book.
But one aside in Bell’s provocative article is especially chilling. He acknowledges that, according to U.S. Census, thirty percent of American households did not have an Internet connection in 2009, which means that they cannot access electronic books or anything else that exists in cyberspace. “Millions of others, mostly older, do not know how to download books, and millions more feel uncomfortable reading on a screen, as opposed to paper.” Yet Bell, like other visionaries, does not appear to be worried: “But all of these obstacles will largely disappear within twenty or thirty years.”
What he means, of course, is that the older readers who don’t know how or don’t want to operate an e-book reader will simply die off. In the meantime, “the only reason to stick with dead tree books these days is nostalgia,” according to a New York Times columnist whom Bell quotes.
At least two things are wrong here. First, the fact that millions of American homes are not wired for the Internet is not a problem that will just go away. Rather, it is a measure of the technological divide between those who can and cannot afford high-speed Internet, which is an economic rather than a generational issue. With the increasing pauperization of the middle class and the scarcity of government spending to help those living in poverty, I wonder why Bell is so confident that poor households will somehow acquire the Internet connections and devices that they cannot afford now.
The other flaw is that the preference for “dead tree books” is not strictly generational, and it will not be solved by the die-off of an aging generation. For me, and not merely because I am now in my 60s, print on paper is a richer and more rewarding way to read books. I may prefer to consult the word-searchable online edition of “McCarthy on Trademark and Unfair Competition” when I am at work, but I still pull down one or another of the handsome volumes in my three-volume set of the collected works of Isaac Bashevis Singer from Library of America when I want to read for pleasure.
The point was made for me when I was chatting with my son, Adam, about David Bell’s article, and he observed that my five-year-old grandson, Charlie, who is already an enthusiastic and accomplished reader, has never read an electronic book. Young Charlie, too, prefers “dead tree books,” which he encounters in abundance in his own home, the home of his Aunt Jenny, and the homes of both sets of grandparents.
Indeed, it was at my daughter’s apartment that Charlie first read aloud to us a charming book by Lane Smith titled “It’s a Book.” Jenny, who teaches English to fifth graders at a private school in New York City, knows what kind of books young readers enjoy, and she pulled a copy of “It’s a Book” off her own well-packed bookshelf. “It’s a Book” reminds us that “dead tree books,” as we know and love them, have a kind of functionality that does not require a high-speed connection or a power source.
“How do you scroll down?” asks one baffled character, a donkey with a laptop.
“I don’t,” replies the other character, an outsized monkey. “I turn the page. It’s a book.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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