One of the features of a life in journalism is the casual assumption, expressed by nonjournalists at cocktail parties, that journalists “know” things: have the inside dope, heard the real version, predict the future. I have always defended myself by saying that, apart from being acquainted with public officials and the occasional celebrity, journalists know little more than the average reader. And as for predictions, your guess is as good as mine.
In my present capacity, however, one question comes up with intriguing regularity: Are we finished with books? Not with content, of course, but with the physical objects. The question is usually asked, I am pleased to report, with a noticeable mixture of regret and anxiety—as if the Internet, for all its manifold virtues, might have gone too far. Its genius and convenience cannot be denied, but obsolescence for certain much-beloved artifacts—the Encyclopaedia Britannica, AM radio—was not necessarily part of the bargain.
So here is my answer: I’m not sure.
If we go by the evidence at hand, I would guess that the imminent demise of books has been greatly exaggerated. It is true that the Internet has transformed the way we acquire them—goodbye Borders, hello Amazon—but the number of books published annually remains steady (indeed, voluminous) and shows no signs of abating. Since we are well into the second decade of the Internet age, I take this to mean that if books were to disappear in the same way that carriages were swiftly supplanted by the automobile, it would have happened by now. Moreover, the publishing world has, to some degree, duplicated the experience of breweries: Whereas the giants have tended to decrease in quality as they expand (Budweiser/Random House), microbreweries/publishers have emerged to fill a vacuum perceived by consumers. As any scholarly writer can attest, it is increasingly difficult to find a big-name “trade” publisher for comparatively arcane subjects, but that does not mean that no publisher can be found.
Still, there are ominous signs. The sale of books on Kindle now equals, perhaps exceeds, the sale of printed books. Speaking for myself, I am impervious to the charms of Kindle: I tend to read in books rather than devour them straight through, and find the Kindle machinery both claustrophobic and aesthetically unappealing. But I readily admit that I am a very small minority of readers, and am married to a satisfied Kindle customer.
For that matter, I have long suspected that certain mass-market products—the novels of James Patterson, for example—might someday subsist exclusively in electronic form, which would satisfy most Patterson fans and leave the rest of us unaffected. But that bodes poorly for trade paperbacks. It is sometimes argued that the virtue of the Kindle is that it enables, say, the vacationing reader to settle easily on the beach with multiple titles instead of lugging around a dozen books. Maybe so. But one virtue of the throwaway paperback is that the reader can bend it, fold down the pages, use it to swat flies, and spill liquid on the contents—and then discard it when finished. I am not sure the Kindle is so versatile.
And of course, the introduction of the paperback edition, which was greatly accelerated after World War II, did not spell the end of the clothbound version. The cost of the paperback was attractive to students obliged to buy titles, and to people who did not wish to invest in an expensive copy of, say, Advise and Consent or The Greening of America. Yet bookbuyers are motivated by more than thrift and convenience. Which, if I’m required to hazard a guess, suggests that books are here to stay.
There is, of course, some resonance in the history of technology. Photography, after the invention of the Kodak camera, became a mass enthusiasm; but painting is still with us. Come to that, the number of equestrians in our society is limited, but automobiles didn’t spell the extinction of horses. And the fact is that the purchase and consumption of books—the clothbound variety, with a dust jacket, usually costing around $27.95—is a habit for many, but not all, Americans. In a lifetime of house-hunting—within, if I may say, sturdy middle-class neighborhoods—I have often been struck by the number of residences which appeared to contain not a single book. By the same token, bookstores are not ghettos for the elderly or Luddite but seem to attract those same 18-to-34-year-olds who don’t use telephones and were raised on video games.
The business of buying and selling books is evolving, and the types of books that make it into print may change in time. But printed books—a mass luxury and acquired taste since the late 15th century—seem destined to endure.
Philip Terzian, literary editor of The Weekly Standard, is the author of Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.