As I was reading ‘Will Books Disappear?’, Jeff Gomez’s thought-provoking chapter from his equally fascinating book, Print is Dead, I was struck by the author’s comments on candles and lightbulbs.
To summarise – many people thought that Edison’s invention of the lightbulb would mark the death of the candle. However, as we all know, the opposite has happened, and in some cases, luxury candles are now more expensive than the ubiquitous lightbulb.
Gomez believes that the same thing will happen with printed books. As reading in its digital format becomes the standard manner of consuming literature, printed books will become more like ‘antiques’, or perhaps better, ‘works of art’.
Is that which is meant to condemn the printed book to its death, actually its saviour? This got me thinking about the way we consume books today and how things has changed even in my own lifetime.
Allow me to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. I grew up in the countryside and the nearest library (and bookshop) was a 20-minute car journey away. Moreover, Amazon was just a rainforest then.
Fortunately, there was another way to access books – the mobile library. Every week, the van would appear at the top of my road and I would be allowed to select one or two titles from its limited, but well-chosen, library.
Books felt special. They were something to protect. I remember feeling a genuine sense of excitement on seeing that big bus of books arrive each Saturday. It came and then it went. For one morning only.
Right now, if I want a new book, I open up my laptop, head straight to an online retailer and my chosen title will arrive at my door in a few days. The prices are low and the choice is immense – overwhelming, at times.
Alternatively, I could walk to the local bookshop near my house or cycle into town and visit the high-street book retailer – admittedly, these are pleasant experiences and personally, preferable to shopping online.
However, I do feel that we have arrived at some sort of saturation point when it comes to printed books. Something needs to give. Something needs to happen to make printed books feel special again.
Perhaps the rise of digital books is just that something, or perhaps we just need to bring back mobile libraries.
Jeff Gomez, Print Is Dead (New York: Macmillan, 2008), p. 177.