Sam is incredulous, lamenting, “There are no links,” and “You have to turn pages.”
Zonker folds the paper into a pirate cap and challenges the youngster to, “Try this with your fancy computer.”
The Internet has already transformed various print media. Many readers are doubtless reading these words online, first. Similarly, although popular magazines still thrive in print, most specialized periodicals have migrated to electronic as an equal, if not primary mode of publication.
What about the most enduring symbol of print media, though? What is the future of books?
On the surface, the book publishing industry appears healthier than ever. According to the Association of American Publishers, total sales of books in 2009 grossed $23.9 billion — and not even “Twilight” series titles, celebrity biographies, and the book-du-jour by Glenn Beck combined can account for sales of that magnitude.
It is also fair to say that the book publishing industry is inherently conservative, mindful of market possibilities of electronic books, but equally cautious about reliving the experience of music companies, which still absorb huge losses due to illegal downloading.
Still, there are many who see the transition as inevitable and are working to hasten it.
For example, the respected Institute for the Future of the Book describes an intellectual environment, “Freed from the traditional print publishing cycles and hierarchies of authority.”
Acceptance seems to be the key. Quite simply, until people prefer electronic books to print ones, the demand will not compel wholesale change.
Part of the issue is technological. The reviews of most e-readers are lukewarm, failing the “cuddle up with next to a warm fire” test. I assume, however, those sufficiently “cuddly” e-readers will eventually be devised. The real question seems to me to be this: Which would you rather own, a book with form, heft, and substance, or, well, nothing tangible, just words, out there in the cloud?
What will determine acceptance? I propose that there are both psychological and cultural factors to consider.
According to “Reading in the Brain,” by Stanislas Dehaene (which is, by the way, available for download), the neurological phenomenon of reading is centered in a location of the brain that appears to have no preference for media, other than black words against a white background. I wonder, though, what whole brain comparisons between reading from print books and the same text on e-readers would reveal. Does the physicality of book reading make a difference at the level of brain response? For me, it just feels like it does.
Even more formidable, though, is cultural acceptance.
People like to own books. They like to keep books on their shelves to reflect upon tastes, values, and personalities, to serve a purpose even when they’re not being read. The books on your shelf convey a sense of identity and learnedness. That’s why so many annual report photographs of CEOs are taken in front of full bookshelves.
True, this may be a generational phenomenon. To digital natives, books may seem clunky, inefficient, and just plain old-fashioned. I’m coming to appreciate that, to them, reading often means a nonlinear, unstructured, and free associative process. Books don’t work that way.
As an owner of around 2,000 books and an author, I admit to prejudice. But when I have time to kill, I go to a bookstore or library and browse the shelves, and in doing so receive satisfaction far different than anything done online.
Thus, I propose a new verb, “digitate,” for the kind of rapid eye scanning that one does with online media – i.e, digitate: to process visual information on a computer screen. To me, though, the verb “read” requires print, paper and pages. A warm fire would be nice.
Gregg Sapp is a freelance writer and a member of the Pacific Northwest Science Writers’ Association. A member of The Olympian’s board of contributors, Sapp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.