Will E-Books Eliminate Physical Books?

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Amazon.com's recent announcement that sales of e-books at the online megastore had overtaken sales of hardcover books came as no surprise. It had to happen sometime. But the news did conjure quite an interesting mental image: libraries that from now on will look smaller and less crowded. For the moment, let's not argue with the proposition that people will read as much as they ever have, no matter whether they read an actual book or a book on a screen. The habits of readers may not change (if anything, people may read more, or at least buy more—several stories have quoted e-book owners who say they buy more titles for their e-readers than they did when they were buying hardcover books). But if readers aren't changing, their environments will. Rooms that once held books will—well, whatever they hold from now on, it won't be books. Or not as many books. Theoretically, your space will be more spare, more serenely uncluttered. That's the theory, at least. My experience is that stuff expands to fill the space available. But you can dream.

All of this has already happened big time in the music business, where downloads have gradually but surely replaced CDs. I don't know how many people I've overheard crowing because they managed to transfer their entire music collections onto their computers. All those CDs taking up space on the wall—gone. All those CDs that travel from car to kitchen to bedroom to living room, with the CD and the case getting separated somewhere along the way—a problem no more in the digital age. From now on, we'll own what might be described as the idea of stuff, since the actual physical things—records, tapes, photographs, CDs, and now books—have been as good as vaporized, with the information contained therein stored away on a hard drive.

This, of course, is merely collateral damage in the digital revolution, if damage it is. There's as yet no way to tell if this transition is good, bad, both, or neither, but surely the absence of a physical library, be it musical or literary, marks a fundamental shift in the way we live and think about things. In music, for example, the rise of iTunes, Pandora, YouTube, and all the other online music purveyors has quickly eroded our devotion to the long-playing album as the principal means of organizing music. After a half century of neglect, the lowly single is back on top. Most immediately this has repercussions for artists, maybe not so much for the people who buy their music. But who knows?

With books, the absence of packaging does nothing to the contents. I can buy a hardcover copy of Moby-Dick or download it onto an e-reader, and Melville is still Melville. But I grew up loving Rockwell Kent's illustrations of that novel, and later Barry Moser's. It's hard to think of the book without them. I can do that, certainly, but some little thing is lost.

Paperbacks and public libraries made books cheap or free but certainly available to millions who might otherwise not have been able to afford them, and all that happened long before I was born. Nevertheless, I was brought up by people who had been taught—and who taught me—that books were valuable things, things to be cared for and cherished, and I have owned some volumes for close to half a century (almost none of them, I should point out, qualify as "collectible" or valuable to an antiquarian book collector; owning a rare book makes me nervous. I like books I can hold, read, and even—here my mother is spinning in her grave—write in).

I come from a generation for whom the books and records on the shelf signaled, in some way, who you were (starting with the fact that you were a person who owned books or records or CDs). If you visited a friend, you took the first chance you had to surreptitiously scan that friend's shelves to get a handle on the person. I suppose I could sneak a peek at a friend's Kindle, but is that the same? And try that kind of snooping on a bus or in a coffee shop and you'll probably get arrested. For a sense of the diminution of this sort of information gathering, click through this Tumblr of covers (scroll until you get to the e-reader included in the mix, to fully plumb the difference).

The stuff of our lives is a comfort. We look up at the shelves and we see old friends. (Yes, there are books on my shelves that aren't my friends, that I haven't finished or even started, but someday I will, I promise—my home library is a physical manifestation of ambivalence.) There is comfort in the continuity of seeing the same books year after year. I guess there might be some of the same pleasure in scrolling through a digital library or music playlist, but somehow I think something will be lost.

For years audiophiles have tried to persuade more casual music fans that a vinyl record played on a decent sound system sounds better than a digital recording played on the same system. Digital sound is not as warm, not as seductive to the ear. The resurgence, albeit modest, of vinyl, especially among young listeners and musicians, proves that this argument is not generational. It's not, in other words, just old fogies versus young hipsters.

Something of the same argument might be made for books, or for the tactile pleasure of holding and reading a well-made book. At its simplest, a book is a tool, or an information-delivery system, if you will, and it does what it does supremely well. To conceive of a world without physical books is to conceive of a world somehow diminished. It may be more efficient—yes, you can take a "stack" of books on vacation with an e-reader. It may spare quite a few forests from the pulpmaker's ax. But efficiency is no substitute for pleasure. The future may be less cluttered. It may also be less fun.