Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pass the peace pipe: An armistice

Of late, I've resigned myself to the fact that eBooks are poised to edge out their paper counterparts. According to Wired, Amazon officially sold 143 eBooks for every 100 hardcovers over the course of the second quarter of 2010. The very infrastructure of the publishing company I work for is built on shifting material online. Fisher-Price is buzzing about the tablet-style touch screen iXL Learning System, to be released this holiday season, "hailed as the iPad for the fresh-out-of-diapers set." Bibliophile or no, I'm not blind to the book digitization trend, its inevitability, nor its copious advantages:
  • lower production and distribution costs
  • facilitation of interpersonal engagement, through multimedia content and connection to social media
  • potential for enriched learning
  • portability
My yielding to the technological and commercial reality, however, does not concurrently relegate physical books to some cobwebbed attic. Quite the contrary. I think books will become objects of beauty, the province of connoisseurs (I will be one of them). Max Magee of The Millions wrote,
"In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data....  And yet there is and will always be some beauty in books. And there will always be people who appreciate that beauty....  [Books] are something like snowflakes or at least stamps, so many and so few alike."
Magee predicts that features like deckle-edge pages, embossed lettering and archaic monograms, aesthetic details that celebrate the art of book production, will become more prevalent and elaborate.

Jan Swafford, in a Slate article titled "Why e-books will never replace real books," takes the same stance. He cedes the many benefits of electronic books, even announcing that his next book, on Beethoven, will be "three-dimensional," accompanied by a website with links to music, background content, and a blog. He concludes,
"So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn't wipe out horses. Movies didn't finish theater. TV didn't destroy movies. E-books won't destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print."
I am comforted by these writers' support of the notion that physical books will never be just relics. We can celebrate the beauty of books without relocating them to behind museum glass. We can own an iPad and a bookshelf in tandem. Or in my case, multiple sagging-near-to-collapse bookshelves.

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