back from the never-dead: media gives book second life

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A favorite bookshop: Montclair Book Center

The first time I heard that books could die I was ten. It was 2004. I liked to carry big books around and had already read (but not necessarily understood) The Hobbit by that age and had a book protector that I put on all my hardcovers (there was a handle for portability). It was only a matter of time, I was told at some detestable family party, before all people did was watch TV and go see the movie version of every story that could have been a book. Probably, I fussed with my bookmark and mumbled something about how people would always love books because—just because they would.

Since then, I have read countless versions of the same article with different slipping statistics tolling the bell for the printed book, picking out the casket: death by television, computer, e-Book, smartphone. But recently, there has been a shift in the narrative. Just a month ago The New York Times ran an article online called “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead.” The article focuses on the 10% decline of e-Book sales in the first five months of this year, and announces the failure of Netflix-inspired subscription services to hook digital readers. But this phenomenon goes unexplained. I couldn’t exalt in the announcement that the book lived unless I could be told why.

My eight-year-old self was not so far off the mark. LitHub posted an article last week called “Why the Printed Book Will Last Another 500 Years” that actually mentions The New York Times article but does not shy away from the why. Books will survive, author Adam Sternbergh asserts, because they are different than the record, cassette, and CD in that you still get the same song just in a different package. But the experience of reading a book is part of the package, so that reading a print book and finishing it “with a satisfying thud” feels different than reading on a computer, where all text blurs together.

I worked in a bookstore called Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights where the staff hand-picked one book a month for customers who had subscribed to their Reading Year service. I was responsible for wrapping the books in brown paper and string and sealing the package with red wax. Sending hundreds of these books out during my time there made me realize that the book was a luxury experience, much like Sternberg attests. Unwrapping a personal book in the mail with a handwritten notecard from a bookseller creates a memory that the digital age can’t download.

A Mr. B's Reading Year Book, wrapped by yours truly.
A Mr. B’s Reading Year Book, wrapped by yours truly.

And most people focus on the physical aspect of the book as experience without delving so much into the voice of books now. Another pre-mortem mourning ceremony is often held for the publishing industry as a whole, an inevitable casualty in the war on print. However, Johnny Temple, Managing Editor and Founder of Akashic Books, gave a talk to a circle of interns this summer about the publishing world. Of course he had to answer to the book’s imminent death. He disagreed with it entirely. People like to reminisce about the good old days of publishing; it is a popular past time. But really, who was being published then? A majority of white men. Today, there are a multitude of voices from all over the world that weren’t being published in the so called golden age of books. Publishing, Temple continued, is the most exciting and diverse it has ever been. Those voices are being published now. The book—pristine hardcover and well-worn paperback—is turning out a sequel because our printed, handheld hero still has a story to tell.

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