Last month San Antonio, Texas, opened Bibliotech, America’s first bookless public library, which allows patrons to borrow inexpensive e-readers and download electronic books from home. For us writers and lovers of literature, the mission before us was clear: Lament! My Facebook feed was full of posts forecasting the end of paper books: Would it be five years? Ten? “Technology doubles ever year, Moore’s Law!” the pessimists fretted. The more nostalgic among us simply shared their first encounters with books: the smell of the glue, the weight of the pages, the paper-cuts—all things our children will never have a chance to experience.
As a publisher of print literature, my career is on the line—I should be rending my garments as much as anyone. But I’m not worried. Paper books are here to stay, and every tablet and e-reader that’s sold only makes them a better home for writing that we truly value.
When I hear publishers complain about ebooks, I’m reminded of broadcasters predicting the demise of radio when television was introduced in the late 1940s. Their concerns were understandable: Why would anyone just listen to a program that they could also watch? And it is true that television brought an end to the Golden Age of Radio—but it’s also true the producers were able to adapt.
When an environment changes, creatures survive by learning to fill a new niche. There was no longer a need the serial dramas and quiz shows of the past—television could clearly do that better. But there were other formats that played to radio’s strengths. The high costs of television production meant that radio was more nimble, and it quickly became the superior format for up-to-the-minute news. This led to further development as a medium of discussion, with popular call-in shows that gave their audiences a new and broader soap box, and then the modern shock jocks and NPR story hours in counterpose.
Six decades after the introduction of television, there’s still a radio in every car—and the internet has brought it back into our homes, in a way, with the ubiquitous and often idiosyncratic “podcasts.” I don’t have access to television, but I listen to radio-like streams every day—interviews with authors and lengthy lectures on an array of topics that would have never been broadcast otherwise. What’s more, this content works better as audio, where complicated information can be presented without any excess visual distraction. The mind has room to muse. Podcasts, I think, have become the medium of the day-dreamer—and millions of listeners take advantage of that every week.
As we become increasingly plugged-in to the digital age, I’m sure paper books will find a similar fortune. Books provide something that technology tends to destroy: Let’s call it “sanctuary.” I don’t have to explain how this happens; everyone who has a smartphone knows the bitter-sweet buzz of a new message. Everyone’s read an article online and been distracted by the banner-ad at the side of the screen. This will only get worse. Google Glass. Cortical implants to project the web directly into the mind’s eye. If you think you feel distracted now, just wait ten years.
And in ten years, when you want a break from it all, you’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dog-eared, glue-smelling, paper-scraping book.
The tech companies want you to pick up an e-reader, but the problem is e-readers feel too much like what you’re longing to avoid. E-ink is nice—especially for those with vision problems who need to enlarge the text—but anything that has a screen and is the size of your phone looks like your phone. And you’ve already spent too many hours conditioning your brain to be distractible while using it. When I read an ebook, I can feel a tingling on the left side of my frontal lobe that’s telling me to toggle over to another program and check my email. It’s an itch that I’m wasting attention on by not scratching even when I don’t. My fingers are ready to X-out a pop-up ad. My auditory cortex is primed and waiting for the next beep of a tweet. Even though none of these things will be coming from my e-reader, my brain has been trained to expect them. It’s impossible to lose myself when I’m so self-aware.
Only when I open a real book can I finally relax and become immersed in what I’m reading.
In the future, we will return to paper as a sanctuary, as a place for quiet contemplation and introspection. We won’t bother reading tabloid magazines or informational texts in print—ebooks are better for that; we can give up that ground. But when we want to escape our world, when we want to explore complicated ideas, when we want to feel deeper emotions and come to truer understandings and use our imaginations at full capacity—when we want to experience literature, in other words—we’ll always turn to paper books.
p.s. This article was written almost five years ago. In the time since, Real Books Are Back: ebooks sales are down, print sales are up. You can also see our waning interest in ebooks by looking at the download totals of Rattle‘s ebooks, which are offered free to subscribers. Every issue sees fewer download than the last, despite the fact that print subscriptions are up 105% (more than double!) since 2013.