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The endangered book

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, December 7, 2008

You might want to ask Santa for a book this year, since the book might be on its way out.The news from the publishing industry (or at least the trade publishing industry; academic presses are still doing relatively well, so those of you who are hoping to say goodbye to textbooks are out of luck) is grim: Major publishers – Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, to name a few – are freezing salaries, laying off staff members and, the worst sign of all, no longer acquiring new titles. This makes about as much sense as having a TV channel refuse to create new shows; after all, who really enjoys watching TV Land or My Michiana? And it all comes down to old-fashioned demand: Publishers are doing badly because booksellers are finding it harder and harder to sell books because, in all likelihood, people are not reading for pleasure as much anymore.If not the economic turmoil, then technology might spell the end of the poor codex. Amazon’s Kindle, for example, is far from perfect in either price tag or the quality of the read, which is about as visually appealing as the display screen of a first-generation iPod. It does, however, represent the first generation of devices that will someday allow us to access all the world’s literature (read: Google Books, probably) on demand. No more needing a second hand to turn the page, no more herniating your intervertebral discs when moving out of your dorm room; the portable digital reader will do it all.Yet there are more than a few reactionaries – Luddites, if you like, and more often than not authors or professional literary critics – who feel an inexpressible horror at the prospect of replacing books with electronic downloads. J.K. Rowling, for example, has stipulated in her contract that Harry Potter will never appear in electronic format, though one wonders whether this is as unbreakable a vow as it seems. Those who, for instance, insist that the aesthetic experience of reading a book is absolutely unparalleled on the one hand might be surprised at how well technology can recreate the book-reading experience, and on the other appear more than a bit dilettante. Practicality issues, which is to say the apparent inability of anyone to come up with a durable standard for data storage in anything, ever (.doc? .docx? .pdf? .wps?), will hopefully improve, as will issues with battery life, portability, and hard drive size. Things, in short, are not looking good for print.But the book might not be an entirely lost cause yet. I don’t know whether anyone has studied the psychology of reading on a printed page versus a computer monitor. From personal experience, however, I know that whenever I see an electronic screen, I am seized by a sort of intellectual psychosis that prevents me from reading more than 50 words or typing more than a dozen before I feel the urge to multitask: check e-mail, pull up another website, shuffle through my iTunes list. I find it nearly impossible to read an entire essay, let alone a whole book, on the computer; doing so requires so little investment of energy and effort – a click here, an Alt-Tab there to both start and stop – that I can neither prevent my eyes from sliding past entire paragraphs at a time, nor make myself feel bad when I declare my efforts a failure. Reading a book, meanwhile, requires preparation, picking out a comfortable seat, shutting myself off from distractions and setting aside huge blocks of time just to read – a sort of temporary cloistering. Maybe it won’t happen with dedicated digital readers, but it seems that reading something that doesn’t in some way inconvenience the reader makes it harder to invest the time and effort to do so. That is, the e-book might be harder to read well because it will be so easy to read.Of course, there is one last point worth mentioning. Books are also harder to steal – which, in South Bend, is probably a compelling enough reason to hope that they don’t disappear just yet.

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in History. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.