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The Decline of Paper Books

A friend of mine shared a link on Facebook today about the book business.

“Barnes & Noble Up, Borders Down” details B&N’s celebration of fourth quarter sales by the New York-based (and largest book retailer in the world).

However, the sales did not really come from selling paper books.

The company attributed the gains partly to interest in its e-reading devices, especially the Nook Color, which was introduced last fall.

I have worked at a bookstore on and off for 15 years, and have noticed a steady decline in the number of people who come in regularly to browse and buy.

The regular browsers have disappeared, having purchased an e-reader of one kind or another.

Despite the sales pitch, these devices are anti-social and raise some serious concerns about the future of society and our political system.

Some concerns:

E-readers

  • Eliminate face-to-face human contact and the direct dialogue.
  • Help foster the already rampant epistemic closure that threatens the free exchange of ideas (something necessary in democratic society).
  • Put a reader’s access to information in the hands of corporations (see digital rights management).
  • Remove the incentive to publishers to actually produce physical books (why go through the expense, when you can put a file up on a server?)
  • Will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, once enough people purchase them and make physical books way too expensive
  • Will bar information access to people who cannot afford computers, e-readers and the cost of books

Much of the above has already happened with the proliferation of a cable news station devoted to partisan bickering and the equally virulent sites on the internet.

Most young people don’t read, and most older people only read what the personalities on television tell them to.

The kids I see in bookstores almost invariably are there for an assigned book (ridiculously mispronouncing book titles and authors) or for the latest in teen “romance”.

There is actually a section of on major retailer for “teen paranormal romance”.

Older people come in to get books on the bestseller list, or political books they see hawked on television by Fox News drones.

Fewer and fewer come into the bookstore to really browse and intelligently seek out books on interesting subjects.

People are told what to read, usually by a corporate marketing machine, or a political propaganda outlet. Obediently they shuffle in, grab the book in question, and leave — never glancing at anything else in the store.

We have become a nation, perhaps a world of sheep-like consumers, conforming to marketing needs of corporations.

How else to explain the runaway success of the offensive “Eat, Pray, Love”?

E-reader devices are only going to accelerate this process, and make it harder for people to break out of their boxes and expand their horizons.

Can you imagine that browsing books online will ever be as satisfying as wandering any bookstore and finding a previously unknown work that immediately grabs your interest? Me neither.

Don’t get me wrong, I love gadgets, and some of the e-readers are nifty and do some amazing, useful things, but I fear that the end of printed books is closer than you may think.

Last nail? Meet coffin.

Soon, books may go the way of the CD, and the DVD movie rental place.

Hopefully, creative people can come up with solutions to the above problems that the end of print will bring, but I am not optimistic.

I can’t help being sad about the decline of books.

In my lifetime, I have seen the beautiful artistry and package design of LP records shrink to the palm-sized jewel cases for CDs, which will soon give way to files on a thumb-sized MP3 player.

Similarly, I have seen the death of Betamax and VHS, and the birth and decline of DVDs and Blu-Ray — which will likely be supplanted by file downloads before I die.

The saddest part of all for me is watching the parade of people  in and out of the bookstore, who don’t realize that with every “I’ll just order it online” and “I just got my Kindle/Nook/Sony” they are helping kill a piece of culture that I have had a personal and satisfying relationship with.

For the time being, I will console myself with a long-standing practice: I will continue to hoard books in my apartment, collecting sturdy volumes of classics and my favorites to pass on to my children and to lend to (trustworthy) friends.

As Egon says in “Ghostbusters” — “print is dead”.

Long live print.

-Chris

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January 7, 2011 Posted by | Books, Entertainment, Media Criticism, Technology, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments