I realize “I don’t know” isn’t very attention-grabbing, or authoritative as an editorial position. It doesn’t get you cited or re-tweeted. So be it. Maybe it’s my lifelong love of printed books that has me hedging my bets, but I’m just not ready yet to start yelling “the book is dead” as so many others are doing, even as I write. Of course, they will just say I’m a relic and as obtuse as the man with the dead parrot in the Monty Python skit, and the writing is already on the wall (even if it soon won’t be on the page). The next generation, I’m told, will not share my archaic conditioned response to the printed word, making it as good as gone by the time the day comes that the neighbors notice the odd smell and break in to pry the paperback from my cold, dead hands.
The latest uproar arose over the announcement from the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary that they will no longer be producing a printed edition of their product. The Twittersphere went manic with yet more funeral notices for the pBook triggered by this pronouncement. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that it’s only the full, unabridged 20-volume printed version that was actually marked for extinction (maybe). Other one-volume condensed printed versions will still be produced because that’s where the OED evidently makes the bulk of its revenue … not from the CD-ROMs or £234 per year online subscriptions.
So, waters muddied again, I ask myself once more whether printed books will soon disappear altogether, as so many other forms of media have in my working lifetime. And, again, I can state, with unequivocal authority, that I don’t know. Yes, clearly we’re at a bookmarkable point in the evolution of eBooks (which have, by the way, been around for a while). The discount-priced Kindle and the oh-so-cool iPad are certainly catching on, and admittedly comprise a growing part of the book-reading universe. No doubt there will be plenty sold in the coming holiday season, again sending up a very vocal funeral dirge for the printed word.
And yet, printed books also continue to be cranked out in record amounts, and despite much-hyped news about changing softcopy-to-hardcopy sales ratios, eBooks still appear to hold less than 5% of the market – and that doesn’t include the unrecorded continuing re-sale of second-hand books (even if the local bookstores that offer them are decidedly on the decline.)
And so the debate rages on, with me sitting in the middle, almost wishing I could be convinced one way or another. People with eReaders are reading more books, goes one report. People with eReaders are hoarding books, but not necessarily reading them more, says another. eReaders are more ecologically friendly, even after manufacturing, then those printed on the corpses of dead trees, claims one source. Printed books, especially those on recycled stock, are far less harmful to the environment than the plastic, toxin-filled electronic devices that end up festering in landfills, someone counters. Sigh.
So, eReader in one hand and trade paperback in the other, I return to my book-strewn studio to ponder and blog. I’m surrounded by reference texts I’ve diligently amassed over the years and now seldom use because the web is handier and more robust, and because a grassroots do-it-yourself encyclopedia has kicked Britannica’s butt. Still, if the power goes out, I’ll be able to read those relics (by candlelight) long after batteries die. And, if things go really bad, I’ll be able to burn them in the fireplace for warmth. Somehow I doubt a Kindle is any good as kindling.