Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Thoughts On the Future of Books

I am certain that the thoughts below are not really new or original, but I wanted to share them, anyway. I heard (a variation on) them from Nathan Englander at a reading last night. He was responding to a question about the ongoing shifts in the publishing industry – e-books, the death of Borders, etc. Incidentally, the questioner did not ask the question mindlessly and simply because it is topical. Englander read an entire story from his new collection – What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank – which, indirectly, but beautifully, comments on the shifts in reading, books and the like. 

Nathan asked, rhetorically:

-Did the phonograph kill live musical performances?

-Did the photograph kill painting?

-Did film kill the theater?

-Did the “talkies” kill silent film? Well, maybe, and yet a silent film has multiple Academy Award nominations, almost 80 years (give or take) after the last major Hollywood silent films.

I’ve added to/changed some of the points – within minutes I had already forgotten Englander’s exact comparisons – but the gist remains.  Also, the point I love most – about The Artist and the Academy Awards – was 100 percent from Nathan. (Another very similar point: the resurgence of the LP in the age of MP3s.)

Bottom line: e-books will not kill print books or kill the publishing industry. They simply represent a shift, like any other historical/technological shift. In fact, I believe that print books will exist for a long time. There will always be people who will pay a premium for a different kind of experience. People pay (sometimes significantly) for theater, live music and movies, even though they can get similar content cheaper in slightly different forms. Holding a book, feeling the pages, having an author sign and inscribe one to you are all experiences I would pay a premium for. And I know that I am not alone.  I just hope that the price of that experience doesn’t double in ten years. (I could see that happening!)

The story that Nathan read – called The Reader – presents a rather pessimistic view of the future of reading, but given his statements, I don't think he is pessimistic. I think he simply wrote a story. And a great one. It's a reminder that it is often a mistake to project the content of a story onto an author.

Stay tuned for a review of the collection.

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