I’ve participated in a number of interesting discussions on LinkedIn of late. One which stood out was a group of people chatting about the future of the print book in an increasingly ebook world. Is there a future for print books? What would that future look like? The opinions, suggestions, and predictions ranged the entire field of possible answers, and the discussion has been well thought out. Posts ranged from “ebooks are here, get with the future!” to “you can pry my print books from my cold, dead fingers!”
One fascinating thing about that discussion is that, being something of a history buff, I happen to know that almost the same talks were had back when the printing press was first introduced.
That’s NOT a slam on the arguments against ebooks, though! My wife, among many other things, creates beautiful recreations of medieval manuscript pages, and new works in the same style. The calligraphy and illumination (artwork done in the margins, painted by hand, often unique to each copy of a book) that were part of most pre-press manuscripts were simply amazing!
And they’re gone, now. It’s an art form practiced by a diminishing few.
There are *enormous* benefits to be had from ebooks. Ease of access. Ease of storage of our beloved works of literature. The ability for those who have trouble reading small text print books to access literally any written work. Ease of transportation of the books. Lower costs for production of books. The ability for anyone to publish, to try to have their voice heard. Access to books which might have too small an audience to warrant print publication. The surety that no work of literature we own will be lost to the ravages of disasters. Increased ability to interact with other readers and even the writers of beloved books through the increasingly interactive networking available between readers. And buckets more.
But there’s something to be said for holding a physical object, as well. We’re physical creatures. We value having a possession, owning a thing. It’s built into us over millions of years of evolution, made much more intense over the last couple hundred thousand years. Humans like to have *stuff*. There is a visceral pleasure in it; scientists can even tell you precisely what chemical compounds are released in the brain upon acquiring a new possession to make us feel good. Acquiring more stuff is a survival trait.
And the only “stuff” we get to physically acquire regarding ebooks is newer, better, faster, cooler looking readers. Yes, we get to read the books – we can collect them, ephemerally. But the *physical* object – the thing our DNA is coded to make us want – is the reader, not the ebook. I think there’s significance to this.
Think about being given a gift from someone – which would you prefer? A little card saying “here’s the code, go download Book X”? Or an actual physical copy of Book X? We’re hard-coded to prefer the latter. It’s in our genes.
It’ll be very interesting to see how this change affects our species moving forward. I, for one, think that while ebooks will take over the vast majority of all publishing, there will still be a place for special books, for special gifts of print editions – which perhaps we’ll finally treasure again the same way we once viewed the hand-copied medieval manuscripts, because like those books, the future print books will be rare and memorable items.