Monday, August 2

Long Live The Book

I was just reading an interesting article from this month's issue of Washington Lawyer, entitled "The Future of Reading," by Bob Kemper, which discusses the doom and gloom pronouncements on the death of the printed book now that e-books are becoming ever more popular. It isn't available online yet, or I would link to it; but I didn't want to wait to write this post lest I forget.

So many people are predicting the end of the printed book, but I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong, I know there are a lot of benefits to e-books, not the least of which is their portability. You can carry a whole lot o' books around in one little e-reader. And it's an excellent medium for researchers, no doubt about it. And it's true that e-readers are becoming more popular, and are possibly encouraging more people to read, all of which is good. The article says that the number of readers in the U.S. declined by 20 million between 1982 and 2002, according to the NEA. But the article also says that the U.S. alone publishes 275,000 books in a year, which is even more than a true reader could keep up with, so I don't know that we can say that people have stopped reading altogether, or that people have completely forsaken the printed book.

Even with the Internet, I have had a little trouble tracking down exact figures, but the gist of what I have found seems to say that while the publication of printed books has flattened out quite a bit, we are still way ahead of figures from the 1950s. In fact, according to the article, and contrary to it's own doom and gloom prediction, the latest NEA survey, released in 2009, says that the number of readers has risen across the boards for the first time in 25 years, with the biggest increases between the ages of 18 and 24 ... you know, that group that's supposedly too busy texting to read anymore.

They cite the rise in popularity of first the Harry Potter series, and second the Twilight series as reasons; but, honestly, I think it was more likely a natural ebb and flow. And does it really matter why? If people of any age are once hooked by a book, they will eventually read again. It's really just a matter of finding the right book for them. It doesn't matter whether they come, initially, by way of an e-reader. If they are hooked at all, I think the odds are that they will visit a public library, pick up a paperback at the drugstore, or borrow from a friend. Because once you fall in love with reading, it's a love affair for life.

And now I'm going to sneak in another little opinion of mine, a radical idea that has been niggling away at the back of my mind for a few years now. Is it possible that the publishing industry, itself, is to blame for what might appear to be a decline in book sales? Oh, I'm not even talking about the price of a book, which is becoming ridiculous, I admit. No, what I've been pondering is a theory more rebellious than even that. Did it, in a mad rush to ride the wave of reading popularity of a few decades ago, lower its own standards? Because I have to say that while I have always bought and read books, it has become increasingly hard to find really GOOD books over the last few years. So I'm wondering if publishing types, rather than paying attention to the quality of the books they printed, were, perhaps, letting themselves be led by the bean counters.

See, that's the only way I can explain to myself why, every few years, there seems to be a glut of some sub-genre in publishing. To be putting out that many books aimed at one small market and get them all out on the shelves in a fell swoop, I have to believe that publishing has been doing it deliberately, and I simply can't believe that whoever makes these decisions really believes that every single one of those serial killer paranormal romantic suspense chick lit mysteries is the next Tom Clancy or John Grisham offspring. Which means that they have been deliberately glutting the market with inferior reads. And rather than admit that the reading public has gotten disgusted and decided to be more selective and aim for quality over quantity, they are instead shouting that people don't read anymore. Huh.

Okay, I got a bit off topic there, but not too much. Because my point in all that ranting is that people are still reading, and the printed book is not dead or even dieing. It's biding it's time. In the article, Katherine Hayles of Duke University, herself a teacher of electronic literature, agrees with me, pointing out that traditional books have many advantages that digital devices will never have. Face it, you never have to recharge them. And when the apocalypse comes, which another depressing group promises is just around the corner, my hard copies will still work just fine.