A few days ago, I tweeted an article from TechCrunch about how Amazon reports that last month, they sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books. It’s a little hard to do a complete analysis from the few numbers that they reported, especially because it’s not apples-to-apples on price, titles, etc — but even directionally, this is an amazing milestone. It’s incredible to me how quickly eBooks have emerged, after languishing for so long.
For me personally, it’s acute: I don’t really even like buying books that I can’t get electronically anymore. It shows in my library — I’ve been giving away about 100-200 books a year to our public library, but still have well over 1,000 in the house. But I have more than 150 on my Kindle, after 2 1/2 years. My physical library is shrinking, my electronic one growing.
I have zero sentimentality – none – about the form of the book. I’ve noted elsewhere that what I discovered on getting my Kindle is that it isn’t particularly books that I love so much, it’s reading that I love. Novels, non-fiction works, short stories, whatever. It’s the words that I’ve always cared about, the ideas, the narratives, the characters. Not the wood pulp, the binding glue, the flashy book jackets (that often don’t have anything at all to do with the author’s intent).
But lately I’m worried that as we rush headlong into the electronic future that we’re losing something.
I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not reading as well — every reader I talk with reports that they’re not comprehending the books quite as deeply as they used to. I believe we’ll get better at reading electronically, and the format will allow better paging through and spatial memory eventually, but that’s far from obvious to me. (Most avid readers I talk with say that they can usually remember where on the page they read something — top left, lower right, in the middle, whatever — and that’s always been true for me. The reflowable digital form obviously breaks that spatial memory, and is a bit of a problem.)
But the thing I’m worried about more lately is the disappearance of books in our physical spaces. I’ve always found that when I go visit peoples’ houses that what’s on their bookshelves is a bit of a lens into their lives and their values. Almost invariably when people come over to our house for dinner, I’ll hand them a book from my shelves that they’re interested in with no expectation (or desire, actually) to get the book back.
I find it even in my own home — when I’m in the office, I’ll often notice a cluster of books about something that reminds me of a time in my life, or stokes an old curiosity, or that just makes me happy.
But now the books we have in our house don’t really represent the current me. We tend to have 3 categories: (1) kids books, (2) coffee table books, and (3) books from our past that we haven’t given away yet. I believe that will happen in most homes — and maybe it already has been, since the introduction of the television — and it makes our personal spaces much more anonymous — more screens, less deep content.
I feel the same thing as I travel around — in the airport or on airplanes, nobody can see what I’m reading. Mostly, that’s okay with me — I didn’t really want to talk to my seat neighbor about Stieg Larsson that much anyway. But it bugs me more that my wife can’t see what I’m reading — the books used to serve as an instant conversation-starter. Now the reading experience is faceless, not conversation-inviting at all.
Anyway, I’m sure we’ll replace books as a lens into our brains and lives with something else — digital picture frames? Facebook pages glowing from our walls at home?
Nevertheless, I think we’re losing something in the process. That always happens as we move from one technology to the next, but we’ve overturned a 500 year old technology in less than a decade, and it’s going to be very disorienting.
I’ve never missed reading physical books nearly as much as I miss having the physical artifacts in our world, and how so many clues to who we are are disappearing along with them.