Is It Really Books That We Love?

It seems that my post on Why Traditional Books Will Eventually Die has sparked a good deal of debate. So far, it has generated more than 40 comments and a number of email messages.


Christian Retailing even has an article coming in its January issue. It is entitled, “Nelson head predicts ‘death of traditional book’.” You can read it online here.

The article’s lead paragraph says,

The head of the world’s biggest Christian publishing company has announced the funeral of the traditional book, though he has not set a date.

Well, not exactly. The key word in my post was eventually. The interesting thing to me is that this is even considered news.

To get some perspective, think about music. Just in my lifetime, I have lived through a plethora of music technologies: the 45 rpm vinyl record, the LP vinyl record, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, and now digital formats, including MP3 and AAC. This doesn’t even include all the iterations before my time or all the nuances of the formats I have mentioned.

But despite these technological changes, the music lives on. Last night I was listening to the Moody Blues, Seventh Sojourn via my iPod. I originally bought this album as a vinyl LP back in 1972, when I was a junior in high school. The music sounds just as good now—perhaps even better, since it was digitally remastered in 1997—as it did then. I honestly didn’t think about the device the music was playing on—I was too lost in the music itself.

I think books are similar. I don’t believe that people are as wedded to the technology as they think they are. What they love about books are the stories and the content. They remember how those words made them feel. They love the experience of reading and the places that takes them. The delivery mechanism just happens to be a book—granted a very sophisticated technology that hasn’t really changed in hundreds of years.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has said that the reason books work so well is that the technology just disappears. In other words, as a reader, you lose yourself in the content and forget that you are holding a paper and glue artifact in your hands.

He went on to say, ”our top design objective was for Kindle to disappear in your hands—to get out of the way—so you can enjoy your reading” (from the initial press release for the Kindle). Whether or not this goal was achieved is debatable. However, he certainly has the goal right. The content is primary; the technology is secondary.

So while I believe that most traditional books will eventually be supplanted by something digital, this does not mean that the words themselves will die. Writing, editing, publishing, and bookselling will survive for as long as humans have something to say and other humans want to read what they have said. The form may change, but the basic role of storytelling and communication will live on forever.

Rather than resist this change, I say we should embrace it. It may just be the means by which we engage a whole new generation of readers.

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