Printed books fight for survival in digital age
Books have always faced challenges.
Cost was the first obstacle. Gutenberg’s early Bible sold for roughly three times what a clerk earned in a year.
As prices dropped and books circulated more widely, the power of their words occasionally led to conflict.
Anything from “Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland” (1865) to “The Da Vinci Code” (2003) risked running afoul of some government or church censor.
Bostonians torched Quaker books in 1656. Halfway around the world, Afghans rampaged last month after word spread that U.S. military personnel had burned copies of the Quran.
Yet the biggest challenge books face today is not controversy – it’s obsolescence. Last year, sales of electronic books surpassed printed ones at Amazon.com. And that trend is likely to grow as the cost of e-book devices drops.
Waldenbooks? Gone. Ditto, Borders. The American Booksellers Association lost more than 20 percent of its independent bookstore members during the past decade.
Was Marshall McLuhan right? Fifty years ago, the Canadian media theorist predicted the electronic age would drive the printed word to extinction.
For an update, we asked a variety of local residents about their relationship with books: what they’re reading, how they’re reading it, what the future holds for books, and which ones they’d grab if their house was on fire.
John Marshall teaches advanced-placement English at North Central High School. The first book he remembers reading was “Hop on Pop,” by Dr. Seuss. “And it’s the first book I’ve given all my kids,” he said.
When Marshall was in sixth grade, his favorite book was “Danny, the Champion of the World,” by Roald Dahl. “I read that I don’t know how many times,” he said. “I just loved that book, and I still have it.”
Marshall says printed books are still worth buying and owning. “I have a Nook, but I’m not comfortable annotating on it. What I buy for my Nook are things like Scandinavian mysteries by Jo Nesbo and Henning Menkell.
“But when teaching a book like ‘The Great Gatsby,’ I still use the old copy that I’ve marked up every year.”
Marshall doesn’t know how many books he owns, but bookshelves are a major feature in his living room. “We occasionally get rid of some at garage sales, but then we get more,” he said.
“The printed books I buy now are either school-related or something I really want to engage with, and I write in the margins. The last one I bought was ‘Candide.’ I was teaching it, and I’d given my old copy away, so I bought it and re-annotated it.”
And if there were a fire?
“I don’t know what I’d grab,” he said, “because they’re not irreplaceable. Maybe I’d grab ‘Danny, the Champion of the World’ because it has symbolic meaning to me. And I still have my Richard Scarry books that I had when I was a kid. My mother sent me all those books about 15 years ago.”
Speaking of mothers, Marshall says his mom has a Kindle she uses often. “I sent her a book (“State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett) through the Amazon website, and it magically showed up on her Kindle Christmas morning.”
Even so, Marshall thinks paper books have a future.
“I don’t mind reading my mysteries and science fiction on the Nook – I love having Neal Stephenson’s ‘Reamde’ on the Nook because it’s gigantic, and I don’t have to carry it around,” he said. “But e-books are not the same as paper books. There’s a tactile part of it that I miss.”
Ethan Dahl, a senior in Marshall’s AP English class, expects e-readers to continue improving, but doesn’t believe they will ever fully replace books. “I’ll still be buying regular books 10 to 20 years from now,” he predicted.
Dahl likes fiction, and some books he wants aren’t available for his Kindle Fire. Others, he said, are better in hard copy. “Sometimes they have maps that go along with the storyline, and Kindle doesn’t provide those. So it just depends on what you’re into reading,” he said.
But Dahl acknowledges e-books could improve to the point where they are better than printed books. “My Kindle Fire can do almost everything an iPad can do. It has apps, videos, stuff like that. The first month after I got it, I used it more for watching Netflix than for reading books,” he said.
Dahl proudly describes his growing library. “I have a bookcase that’s maybe 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and the whole thing is full of books. My dad owns even more.”
Dahl’s favorites growing up were the “Harry Potter” and “Eragon” series. “Probably my most treasured books are ‘The Lord of the Rings’ series,” he said.
“I’m definitely not getting rid of books,” he said. “Anytime I go to a mall, the first place I head is Barnes & Noble.”
Another enthusiast is Marsha Chamberlain, who frequents Auntie’s downtown and describes herself as “book-crazed.”
“I don’t have an e-reader yet,” she said, and remains on the fence as to their merits. “They may be good for situations with textbooks – saving the cost of upgrades, not to mention packing around those heavy buggers.”
But Chamberlain doesn’t think e-readers can ever replace the experience of reading a children’s book in print. “The illustrations and the interaction between whoever is reading and being read to – you’d miss too much,” she said.
Chamberlain’s favorites as a child were Disney books, Little Golden Books and “Winnie-the-Pooh.” “Eventually I moved on to Nancy Drew,” she said, “and made it all the way to number 52” out of 56.
If her house were ablaze, Chamberlain would grab three books that belonged to her mother: old copies of “Gone With the Wind” and “When We Were Very Young,” and a special edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Bette Ammon would grab her kids’ baby books “if I could find them.”
Chances are she could find them, since that’s her specialty. Ammon is director of the Coeur d’Alene Public Library.
The first book she remembers from childhood is “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott. “I’ve read that dozens of times.”
Later, Ammon moved on to Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” which she still owns.
Ammon buys fewer books for herself these days. “The library is available, and there aren’t many books I want to revisit,” she said.
“Of course, when it comes to my 5-month-old grandson, books are the best gift!” Her most recent book purchases were Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “Max’s Apples,” by Rosemary Wells.
Do printed books have a future?
“For libraries, the answer is an unequivocal yes for quite some time into the future,” Ammon said. “While libraries have entered the digital universe and offer online materials, we’ll continue to provide books to readers who want them. Formats have come and gone – vinyl records, cassettes, video discs, CD-ROMs, VHS, etc. – but books were there at the beginning, and will remain.”
Ginger Ewing, curator of cultural literacy at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, agrees.
“I was just having this conversation with a group of friends,” she said. “While e-books certainly have a place in this world and are obviously being consumed by millions of people, I think the mind-body connection to a physical book – the senses that are engaged – is too powerful to ever let traditional books completely fade away.”
Tim Clancy, associate professor of philosophy and director of Gonzaga University’s honors program, doesn’t read e-books, and doesn’t see himself going that direction. “I like to make notes in books, and I’m too used to doing that in pencil.”
But Clancy’s students read e-books – mostly for recreation, and occasionally class-related.
“I think books are still worth buying,” said the Jesuit priest. “Like with many new technologies, the old technology becomes a niche market. I think there will still be a market for books; it just won’t be a universal market.”
It’s no surprise Andy Dinnison loves books, since he named his novelty shop after the iconic literary figure Boo Radley.
“Physical books are my passion,” he said. “I understand the appeal of the e-readers, but I will always want to own the book.”
Growing up, Dinnison’s favorites were “The Mad Scientists’ Club” (which he bought at a Roosevelt Elementary book fair), Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan, “The Lord of the Rings,” and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. “And, yes, I still have them all.
“I buy books constantly,” Dinnison said. “I just bought ‘Pirate Latitudes,’ by Michael Crichton, to lift my spirits in the airport after leaving Disneyland and Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Dinnison estimates he owns between 5,000 and 10,000 books. “I try to (cull them), I really do,” he said, “but I seem to fail miserably.”
Dinnison doesn’t begrudge others their Kindles and Nooks and iPads. But, like everyone else we spoke with, he doesn’t foresee the demise of the printed word.
“As long as people read, there will be room for both.”
Freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.