Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Some Good News About Books

McSweeny’s has a series of articles up on why the rumors about the death of books have been over-exaggerated, with pages about the state of libraries, publishing, and global literacy.

This is nice to hear. I’ve been having, for the past couple of years, mixed feelings about the trajectory of the printed word. Electronic readers finally seduced me with their siren song. I’ve got a Barnes and Noble Nook and spend at least an hour with it each day.  Before that, I’d turned my little Asus 701 into an e-reader for catching up on free classics from Project Gutenberg and Manybooks. What times we live in, that the whole of the Western Canon is available for download in seconds, for free.

The old assertion that “People aren’t going to read books from a screen,” fell by the wayside as soon as screens got portable and crisp enough. And then it’s amazing how quickly books change from an object of desire—something we want to handle and collect and accumulate—to something bulky and inconvenient. I’ll find myself looking at a beautiful hardcover in the bargain bin, a book I actually intend to read, sitting there available for just six dollars. And I’ll check my Nook and see that the e-book version is $11.99. This should be an easy decision. On the one hand, an elegant physical product, something I can write in and loan out or pass on or even sell. On the other, and for twice as much: the license to an ephemeral digital file that winks out when the power goes off. But I’m struck by how damn heavy the book is, and how much space it’s going to take up in my house, and how much energy it’ll take to pack up and move it the next time we re-locate.

It’s a bit hypocritical, I suppose, to bemoan the loss of our independent bookstores and the shrinking inventories of our chains, and then refuse to pay even six dollars for an object that, one year ago, retailed for five times that. And it’s petty of me, perhaps, to get irritated with publishers who don’t make the stories I want to read available in electronic form. (I’m looking at you, Europa Editions. I get that you use lovely cover art and high quality paper. But I want to read your stuff, not hang it on my wall. And what’s with you, Haikasoru? Kindle and Apple Bookstore versions only? I’m eager to exchange my pretend electronic money for your pretend electronic content. Japanese culture is supposed to feel cutting edge. So get cutting, already!)

In fact, as I look around at the books that I do have, it’s with designs of selling them, or giving them to friends, or donating them to the library. I realize that I have bought, perhaps, six new books in the past five years. (The Boston Public Library was my favorite place for a couple years, there, and then along came the electronic readers.) The last three times we moved, our library shrunk with each trip.

And then, sometimes, it hits me. Ten, twenty years down the line, I’m really going to miss books. Especially once the effects of Peak Oil set in, and cheap electronic gadgets and the power to run them are a thing of the past.

It’s a matter of both common sense and experience that hard drives and digital storage will fail. That’s fine, when storage is cheap. We backup our data, and copy information from old storage to new. I just bought a one terabyte hard drive for seventy dollars, popped it into a computer that came from the dump, loaded it with everything digital I’ve done during my entire life, and used less than a quarter of the space. When it fills up and wears out in a couple of years, I’ll buy a four terabyte drive and backup onto that.

A few years after that, who knows? Chinese factories might be producing petabyte drives by then, if the minerals and the energy needed to extract them are available. That in itself is a big if. Then, will our dollars be strong enough to pay for them? But will they be shipped around the world on 400 meter long diesel powered container ships that burn 1,660 gallons of heavy fuel oil per hour? Will they be doing this when oil costs $200 or $300 a barrel?

What, in short, is going to happen to our digitized culture when the machines that display and share it become precious and irreplaceable? What is going to happen to culture in general if so much of it is digitized right at the end of the era of cheap energy?

This is what keeps me from unloading my paper library—or at least those volumes which are worth saving and reading again. And it’s what makes me happy to know that 752 million books were sold in 2010, just a little off from the 2009 peak of 777 million. It’s nice to know that those books are still out there, getting printed and purchased. We might have a use for them again.

Even if it’s not me who’s buying them.

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