The book is dead; long live the book!

The book has been around for about 1,000 years now.  Around 100 C.E., someone in the Roman Empire folded some parchment up into a convenient proto-notebook and called it a pugillares membranei. This rather useful innovation lived alongside tablets and scrolls for a time as its form factor was refined into what became known as the codex or, for the Latin purists, caudex. The term means “trunk of a tree” or “block of wood.”

By now, the form factor of the codex is nearly perfect.  It’s compact, adaptable, durable, and relatively cheap.  Keep it away from fire, water, and religious fanatics, it will last centuries.  Yet for several years  cultural critics have been writing obituaries for the book.  Information will be digital!, they announced with the fervor of revolutionaries.  Many, myself included, thought they were daft.  The alternative was, what?  Sitting  in front of a computer monitor scrolling through pages of text?

Psychologically, people have prepared for the shift away from paper for some time.  Few professional workers under 40 remember a time before every desk in the office was occupied by a computer.  Indeed, the idea of not having a computer on one’s desk is almost unimaginable.  Without one, what would one do all day?  Yet for leisurely reading, people have resisted using a desktop of laptop computer.  This was due, I suppose, to the superiority of the codex for this purpose.  It was simply a better tool for the job.

Then came the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and the Apple iPad.  Within the space of a few years, everything changed for the codex.  Except for the iPad, every device listed is more or less a dedicated device for reading explicitly meant to replace books.  A single device could hold hundreds of books and weighed as much as a single magazine.  They are unfussy, uncomplicated, and not outrageously expensive.

Yet strangely, the device itself isn’t the real innovation.  The most radical change brought by the advent of e-readers is how books are published and distributed in the first place.  The internet generally, and Amazon and Apple specifically, have made brick & mortar bookstores and, in fact, the entire publishing system, obsolete.  As the thriller writer Barry Eisler points out in his brilliant dialogue with fellow writer J.A. Konrath, publishers were never in the business of selling books.  They were in the business of selling paper.  Eisler likens them to candle makers who, 150 years ago, believed themselves to be in the business of selling light.  The advent of the lightbulb and widespread electrification, however, stole this business away from them and candle makers had to content with simply making candles.  Traditional or “legacy” publishers won’t go away altogether, but in the coming decade they’ll be reduced to novelties of a bygone era.

The reason is simple: the core function of books has always been to convey information in the form of printed words. The internet makes the cost of distributing this information vanishingly small.  A file is uploaded to a server once and can be downloaded an infinite number of times.  A moment after it’s placed on the Internet, anyone anywhere in the world has instant access to it.  In contrast, the paper codex appears startlingly inefficient.  Every copy must be produced in a printing plant, distributed by truck, rail, plane, or ship, to every corner of the world.  Once it reaches its destination, it must wait to be purchased by a reader who must travel to the store, physically locate the book, and then buy it and take it home.  While we may rightly love the form factor of the book, we do so only for sentimental reasons.  We’re used to them.  We grew up with them.  My own children — five- and three-years old as of this writing — will almost certainly not have this nostalgia.  By the time they reach college, and likely much before then, there will be no textbooks.  Everything will be transported on a tablet computer or e-reader of some sort.  Already this transition is underway and it will only gain momentum as tablets and e-readers continue to gain in utility and drop in price.

The end of the book, or at least the book as we have known it, is upon us.

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