Monday, July 21, 2014

Books and E-books

Last Christmas, someone gave me a Kindle, and I have made intermittent attempts to get engaged in reading e-books on it.  These attempts have met with only mixed success.  A book that was highly recommended by my pastor, who makes no secret that he's not much of a reader, left me unimpressed, and I abandoned it.  More recently, out of a sense of duty to a cultural icon more than genuine interest, I downloaded (for free) a copy of Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's encyclopedic multivolume Remembrance of Things Past.  Proust wins my nomination for Greatest Introspector of the Nineteenth Century Award, but I'm afraid I've abandoned him too, somewhere in his childhood garden among his maiden aunts and the eccentric visitor Mr. Swann. 

The only books I've managed to finish on the thing were a couple of mass-produced page-turners written for young adults.  They managed to keep me turning the electronic pages, all right, but after I finished the last one I felt a little like you might feel after binge-watching five recorded episodes in a row of some trashy TV series—I had to ask myself, "Was that really the best use of my time?" 

Despite numerous prophecies that the days of the printed book are numbered, e-books have not yet done to the paper-book publishing business what hand-held electronic calculators did to the slide-rule business.  Electronic calculators were so obviously superior to slide rules in nearly every way that only die-hard traditionalists clung to their slide rules, which took a one-way trip to the museum and never came back.  That is not happening with paper books.

Once the market stabilized on a few common platforms such as Kindle, e-book sales took off and increased steadily for several years.  Some of the biggest sales boosts came from mass-market fiction series such as the hugely popular Hunger Games franchise.  But in the last year or so, e-book sales have flattened out, while paper-book sales are seeing increases, both in the U. S. and worldwide, that in many cases show faster growth than e-books.  A report on the Digital Book World website says that U. S. sales of e-books through August 2013 were $647 million, about a 5% increase from the previous year, while hardcover printed books accounted for sales of $778 million, up nearly 12% from a year earlier.  This trend is continuing in 2014, and is not the picture of a situation where one medium is simply being dropped for a newer one. 

Instead, it's beginning to look like the book medium one chooses will depend on the message it carries.  This is a familiar phenomenon in other fields—music, for example.  Take two music lovers.  One is a busy college student whose part-time job is standing in front of a tax office waving a big arrow sign.  He wants something to listen to while doing this mindless task.  The other is a professional music critic with exquisite taste and highly discriminating ears, wishing to evaluate the latest recordings of a particular Mozart string quartet.  The college student will be happy with an iPod (or smartphone) with earbuds, while the music critic will want to listen in a quiet room through a high-dollar stereo system and speakers.  Different kinds of messages are just naturally suited to different kinds of media, and the same may be true of book publishing going forward.

So will e-books destroy the paper-book publishing business?  No, but they will change the makeup of what gets published that way.  Books with mainly transient value—what an acquaintance of mine once called "nonce books," meaning it's of interest for the nonce, but not much longer—will probably show up as e-books.  Fiction mega-hits that masses of otherwise non-literary folk gobble up are perfectly suited to the e-book format, which makes it easy for the reader to plow through in a straight line as fast as he or she can read.  But for more scholarly publications that someone might want to keep around for reference or contemplation, I think the paper format is more suitable, and current sales statistics say that paper books are not on the verge of immediate extinction.

If you think about it, there is a physical connection, however tenuous, between a person holding a mechanically typeset book in his hands, and the original author, no matter how long ago the author lived.  If you pick up a copy of Aristotle printed before about 1960, the chain goes like this:  from handwritten manuscript to medieval scribes, to nineteenth-century editor, to typist copying the editor's manuscript, to the Linotype operator setting the type, to the stereotype plates that impressed the ink into the very paper you hold in your hands.  

Maybe some computer geek can figure out the analogous path for an e-book, but I'm not sure I want to hear about it.

I think one of the most profound differences between the natures of the two media is that paper books are inclined to permanence, while e-books are suited to transience.  In the nature of things, I expect that today's e-books will not be readable by future generations of machines, or if they are, it will become a bigger and bigger hassle to do so as time goes on, just as it is probably hard for you right now to recover files on a computer you used more than a decade ago.  But unless the ink has faded to invisibility or the paper has crumbled to dust, we can still read writings that were penned thousands of years ago. 

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that the only copy of the writings of Aristotle, upon whose ideas much of Western civilization is based, lay forgotten in some heir's basement for a couple of hundred years before being rediscovered.  Good thing they were written on paper, because if Aristotle had used a Kindle, in two centuries the batteries would have died and the operating system would have been, well, ancient history.

Sources:  I referred for statistics on U. S. publishing of print and e-books to the websites and, and for worldwide sales to  The popular fiction I read on Kindle was the first two books in the "Airel" series by Aaron Patterson and Chris White.  The story of the rediscovery of Aristotle's works is reported by at least two ancient historians, according to the Wikipedia article on Aristotle.   

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