Bookstores are dying. Libraries are dying right along with them.
We all know why.
The material text had an admirable run. For six hundred years, beginning with the invention of moveable type printing in the West, books have been the ultimate repository and intellectual medium of man's knowledge and communication on every subject under the sun. They stayed around so long that we came to think of them as the permanent template of our culture.
But all that has changed. Bookstores around the country--around the world--are becoming increasingly irrelevant. It's true--or was, until recently--that there were more books manufactured each year.
What is a book? Without its physical manifestation, as a gathering of folded sheets of processed cellulose, does it even really exist?
We think of writing and speaking as fugitive phenomena, until being committed to the more permanent expression of a book. But we now know that books aren't the ultimate end-game of our culture--the more efficient, and probably more ephemeral realization--isn't the book, but electronic data storage. Accessing that data will become--is already becoming--the next big thing in the technological advance in the Age of Information.
We'd like to think that books will continually be produced for those of us who still enjoy them, either as convenient alternatives to computer projection screens, or as physical objects, familiar and convenient, like newspapers and magazines, which are also soon to become history.
Some people are pronouncing these doom-sayings as bogus, but they know in their hearts that books' days are numbered. The only question is what part of the publishing industry will survive, and what will support it?
Like film emulsions and light sensitive print paper in photography, now being rendered obsolete by digital imaging and printing, books will soon become harder and harder to find. And as they become scarcer, fewer and fewer people will regard them as essential and practical. Why would anyone pay $35 for a physical book, when they could rent an electronic version of it for half that price, and never have to worry about disposing of the object afterwards? Even if--as seems inevitable--electronic media ends up costing customers more to access electronic versions than it would have to obtain a physical book--the same way CABLE now costs people much more than old-fashioned commercial television once did--it's doubtful that people will ever "go back" to books. Books are heavy, perishable, and they nearly always decline in value immediately upon purchase, the same way cars and clothes do. Books are indeed luxuries in that sense: A car is a necessity in our culture. And clothes certainly are. Fashions may change, but people still have to get around, and wear clothing.
Could anyone have predicted the demise of print media, even 30 years ago? Who would have believed it?
For those of us who still maintain some affection for the old book culture, all this is very unsettling. The record of six centuries of thought and imagination and research is still with us. It's contained in the books which survive the ravages of time. But those will undoubtedly be reproduced in some expedient form in the future, just as we did in the past. The only question is whether or not these expedient technologies will be as durable as the original sources they were intended to supplant. Presently, all electronic technologies are proprietary, and commoditized. Books are commodities, but they stubbornly outlive the ephemeral use of their initial value as commodity transmitters. But proprietary software programs, and the hard drives that run them, will undoubtedly undergo rapid transformations in future. What will occur if we "replace" the old material texts with these new soft versions, only to see the later incarnations being rapidly made unusable, closed to access forever.
It seems likely that some newer technology, incorporating the content of the material book technology, without being trapped in a decaying form (like software files) will come along eventually. What will it look like? Will the Computer Age end up being a blip on the graph of time, eventually giving way to a consolidated system of exchange, as durable as rocks?
As I've said before, man falls upon the sword of his own vanity, in seeking to create a lasting vestige of his intentions. Matter can't hold the evidence of our having lived. Even stones eventually crumble. That was the point of Wells's Time Machine. All is fleeting. Given enough time, and pressure, the only permanence is change. Even our bodies, and our minds, are but temporary expressions of a genetic code whose formula and elaborations are undergoing constant, if incremental, change. People, like books, are temporary vessels.