Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Death of the Book

I started my job this week at Hatcher library. My job is to get rid of books by giving them to developing countries (through circuitous routes) or just plain destruction. The reason for the book carnage is that, slowly, printed media is becoming obsolete. Journals are rapidly moving exclusively online to save printing costs (well, transfer the costs to us grad students, I guess), but for the moment books are safe. That is only momentary though. As opposed to the physicality of the sound from an LP or the sensual qualities of acrylic on canvas, print media offers nothing that digital representation cannot (aside from the artistic valence of text-as-art, which is distinct from text-as-text i.e. text-as-Dean Koontz).

The current big drawback is that electronic displays are too abrasive on one's eyes to permit prolonged focused exposure. Your monitor is fine for the morning paper, and even doable for a journal article, but not for 700+ pages of Harry Potter. There are technologies on the way to fix this problem. Kindle is one, though I have never seen it for myself. Within 30 years you'll have a snazzy 8.5x11" book reader (or maybe it will just be the monitor of your tablet computer) and you'll sit in your Poeng chair and read the night away. Yeah, yeah, you'll miss the book smell and feel, but it is just too expensive to continue printing media if you can just do it electronically.

I, however, am going to greatly miss the physicality of the book. Massive bookshelves, lugging 15, 20, 40 boxes of books wherever I may roam. The bigger problem for the non-bibliomaniacal people out there is how to sort through all the information. Even now I listen to my CDs more than iTunes because I just can't assimilate 8,000 songs and 1,000 artists every time I want to listen to music. Every book I own I have to buy, schlep and organize. I put it in a special place on my shelf. There are space limitations. You can't pick up every free book on the street because your apt is only so big. As media becomes increasingly electronic the space limitation disappears, and information becomes invisible and trivial. An impressive copy of "The Guide to the Perplexed" in the original hardcover is not as impressive in coverflow buried under the thousands of other books. Access to a university library system will be like Napster, you will have access to the entire collection and you will just bookmark 'your' books to your 'bookshelf.' Instead of taking up space on the coffee table books will remain check-marked and unread.

It is not that this inevitability is bad or preventable. It will be awesome when I can mark up books electronically and search effortlessly. I just want to point out that something will be lost. Going through the house as a kid you'll never ask, "What's Euripides? What's Marx? What's Ionesco?" It will all just be buried under some user profile.

One book market will still endure for the next hundred years, however- sfarim. Because we frummies can't use electricity on shabbes sfarim will have to be printed on paper (and we'll probably hoard old copies of the Classics just to have something to do on long shabbes nights and afternoons). Reason enough to make sure your kids are frum. Ironically the prophecy will finally come to and we will truly be the people of the book.


NoFreeLunch said...

I don't think this is so inevitable. Books are going to be more convenient for a long time. Everybody talks about Kindles, but how many people carry them around to read on the bus? To paraphrase someone in the WSJ, you wouldn't want to read War and Peace on your wristwatch.
With that said, I'm happy that Otzar Roshei Teivot is now online.

Zev said...

But let's say that the Kindle display were built into a tablet/laptop, then what would be the excuse?

As a current reader of W&P I can attest that there is no convenient way to carry it around.