The book is dead. Long live the book.

I have nothing against books.

But the book is an outmoded means of communicating information. And efforts to update it are hampered because, cuturally, we give undue reverence to the form for the form’s sake. Publish or perish, that’s the highest call of our intellectual elite. But any medium that defines itself as a medium is in trouble: newspapers, broadcast TV, broadcast radio, and books. They are all faced with new and better means of doing what they do without regard to the limitations of any one medium.

The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.

The book industry is meeting in Washington now and there are lots of stories about how depressed publishers are. Keith Kelly in the New York Post reports on gloom at Book Expo:

Publishing database Web site Bowker reported that there were more new book titles sold in Great Britain last year – 206,000 new titles, an increase of 28 percent – than in the United States -172,000 new titles, a decrease of 18 percent.

General adult fiction and children’s books both showed double-digit declines in new titles, Bowker found.

Variety reports:

The print media need iTunes, too.

That’s the message — not to mention the hope and the fear — permeating the book bizbiz as it kicked off its annual BookExpo America confabconfab in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Industry vets fretted over how to harness — or at least cope with — the onslaught of new platforms and windows.

“We’re talking about content, not books, and ways to get it out to people,” said Jerome Kramer, editor of trade pub the Book Standard, while moderating a panel on Web 2.0.

Well, yeah. But it’s still limiting to talk about content. It’s knowledge. It’s entertainment. It should be shared and improved and talked about and found in context in whatever way it wants to be and wherever we want it to be.

But we still worship the book as the book — even though we sometimes want to listen to and watch and search and annotate books, when we can, instead… and even though a lot of books, even if they are books, are utter crap. Any episode of The Sopranos is better than half the best-sellers out there. Yet we dismiss TV as the lowest of our culture and we allow our government to burn TV shows but we’d never let them burn books. I’m going to start teaching this fall and I suspect I’ll be pressured into writing a book. I write every day right here and get to learn more than I can learn writing a book. But blogs are, I can tell you, even lower on the scale of academic respect than TV shows and graffiti. (So maybe this is what I should write about in that book.)

We need to get over the book. And then we can reinvent it. That is true of newspapers. It’s true of book publishing as well. The knowledge that is there is, of course, invaluable. That is why we need to find new ways to gather and share and improve and preserve it.

Kevin Kelly just wrote a good and lengthy piece about the fate of the book in the digital age for the NY Times magazine. He concentrated on the technical and legal issues of digitizing books and bringing them the advantages of the web. But I think there’s something more that’s needed if we’re going to reinvent the book. There are business questions aplenty — how writing can be supported in a post-scarcity economy is a question for all forms of media. More than that, though, there are cultural issues. We have to get over the idea of lecture media, of one-way culture. So long as we worship the book as the book with its present limitations, we can’t reinvent it and save the substance of it.

We need to kill the book to save books.

: AND: A few related posts about my personal relationship with books here and here.

: ALSO: Andrew Brown at Comment is Free wonders why badly written books sell well and argues that reading books is, in fact, a unique activity requiring appropriate skill. I quote at length:

The Da Vinci Code really does raises an important and ancient mystery: why do bad books sell better than good ones? …

Not all bad books would sell better if they were better written: if you rewrote The Lord of the Rings so that it did not read like a translation from invented dead languages, a lot of the book’s strange credibility would vanish, though by no means all. Its deeper credibility is non-stylistic and has more to do with the experience of war and loss than anything else.

But there is a class of author where even this kind of explanation breaks down: Dan Brown, Dennis Wheatley, and some other thriller writers like Robert Ludlum fall into this category. They all produce books so aggressively badly written that no virtues of plot or characterisation – even if they existed, which they clearly do not – could make up for the deficiencies of style.

In this case, I think we have to admit that the badness of the prose style is integral to the books’ attraction; if better written, they would sell worse. This explanation requires a special sort of bad writing. It is not vulgarity, not mere inelegance and certainly not lack of refinement: it transcends all these flaws. It requires that every sentence throw up obstacles to comprehension, that every other word be redundant.

To read such books is rather like reading the transcripts of a telephone conversation, except that they contain words and constructions no one could ever use in ordinary speech. They have the redundancy of ordinary speech without any of its naturalness.

I labour the point, but this resemblance to ordinary speech (except for the small matter of being unspeakable) is, I think, the secret of these books’ success. It is not just that they are written by people who can’t, in any interesting sense, write; they are read by people who have not properly learned to read. I don’t mean their taste is uneducated, or that they can’t spell, or that they have trouble with long words, though all those things may be true; I mean that they have not internalised the activity of reading so that it feels natural.

The links between speech and reading and writing are, in a fully literate person, so strong that all three appear to be aspects of the same activity. … To a fully literate person, authors have voices more distinct and personal than most of the people they will ever talk to.

There are clearly millions of people for whom this is not true, and never will be: they have been taught to read in a functional sense, but the whole activity still feels unnatural. The chief characteristic of written language, for them, is that it is an artificial, painful and ineffective way of conveying meaning. All written sentences are, to such people, unspeakable; you would not say them out loud. Just so the style of The Da Vinci Code. …

An interesting argument and I won’t pull out my populist flag to debate the snobbish undercurrent. I think he has a point about style and conversation. I have always been delighted when people tell me that I write like I talk (but in print, they can read at their own speed instead of listen at mine: fast).

I blame authors (and editors and publishers) for bad books. Brown is blaming readers because they keep buying the crap. Not sure I agree with that. In the ’70s, TV was crap because that’s all the networks fed us. In the mid-’80s, when the remote control took over half of couches in the U.S. and the VCR and cable box gave us control over our consumption (though not yet creation) of media, good shows started to be made and they claimed the top of the ratings. TV proved that we do, indeed, have good taste. Critics argued then that we, the masses, could never manage complex shows but, as Steven Johnson demonstrates in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, we can. In the mid-’80s, we saw TV get more complex and better; from Hill St. Blues led to The Sopranos. Learning that lesson is what made me a populist. That is what made me respect the public and the public’s speech online. So I say the jury is still hearing testimony in the trial of books.

I’m waiting for someone to lament that these kids today don’t read. But they read a lot. They may not read books as much and they may read their share of inspipid personal pages, but they also can now find and read information that is more relevant to them and that is recommended by people they trust thanks to the technology of the internet. I think — or, to be more accurate, I hope — that this will lead to more of a true meritocracy of writing. Good writing will rise. Bad writing may still be on the airport newsstand shelves. But then, when you’re braindead on a six-hour flight, sometimes a braindead book is still just what you need.

  • Rob

    We still aren’t quite there technologically to replace books completely. We still need a display with the resolution of print — at least 300 dots per inch. Current screens just don’t have the resolution for comfortable reading the way ink on paper does – ever notice how the most comfortable way to read most PDFs is at 125 or 150 percent?

    These displays should also be reflective, rather than backlit, so that they can be viewed in bright lighting conditions. It’s much easier to turn on a bedside light to read by than to turn down the sun when you’re at the beach.

    The display must also be fairly forgiving. Exposure to the slings and arrows of normal daily usage can’t render it unreadable. Of course, low power and cheap go without saying.

    We’ll get there, but there are still a few years to go.

  • Oh, I’m so torn on this one, because I’m such a bookaholic.

    For me, the best of both worlds would be to have the full content of all books indexed electronically, cross-referenced as much as possible with all other sources of information, and then have a really good electronic display technology that handles rather like a book. Ever see “Minority Report?” Remember the electronic “newspapers” people were reading in the background of various scenes? I want that. Fold it out to read broadsheet format, fold it down for magazines or books. Carry it with me, turn the “pages,” store anything I want to read on it, creat hyperlinks and notes at will, e-mail sections to people, build my web browser and MP3 player into it and… and… and…

    Yeah, I still love books. But I agree, I want more. I’d settle for book content to be more accessible and interconnected. For now.

    – Amy Gahran

    Editor, Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits

  • Never say never, but electronics simply can’t replace the tactile experience of reading a book, of being able to skim through the pages, flip back to re-read something for the sake of clarity or to tip the book up on end to see how far you’ve come and how much more you have to go.

    Sure, books are a static repository in an increasingly dynamic information society, but smart authors have found ways to blend the print with the electronic to offer something more. It’s rare the non-fiction book that doesn’t have an associated web site with addenda, corrections and amplifications. Many authors now have book-specific blogs that allow for a dialogue that moves beyond the covers. These are fantastic developments, but they are ancillary; they don’t replace the experience of a book but rather enhance it.

    I think too often you undercut your own arguments, Jeff, by preaching a sort of all or nothing approach. You constantly predict the death of newspapers (and now books) without acknowledging that there is a vast middle ground (or perhaps DMZ is more appropriate) in which print and electronic information can co-exist to the benefit of both. There is something to be said for the permanence of a book. If we are to learn from the past, then having a fixed document detailing what we knew and when we knew it can be valuable; as valuable as having constantly updated information in other formats.

  • Books: I can buy a used book at a garage sale for 25 cents. I can throw it in my purse. I can spill coffee on it. I can take it into the bathtub, read it in bed, take it camping, on an airplane. I can pass it on to friends easily. I can bookmark pages and go back to them in one second. I can scribble notes on the pages. Highlight.

    The book may take me 10 hours to read. Where else can I get so much value for 2.5 cents an hour?

  • The use of books in teaching is changing. Many text books are now printed in small sections. This makes it easier for students to carry and easier to update. The publishers still have an incentive to make random changes each year to cut into the used market.

    Many professors now gather selections from different sources, photo copy them or have deals with places like Kinko which will do printing on demand. Some of these efforts are even in cooperation with the publishers.

    Book collecting and book reading are different markets with different dynamics.

  • Books need no batteries, no operating systems, no proprietary viewing clients, they have no software glitches, no format incompatibilities, and you can take them to the beach to read them lying in the sun. You can even spill your favorite drink over it (to some degree) :-)

  • Jeffrey Ollie

    If I’m reading a book for it’s entertainment value (or even ‘edutainment’ value for books like biographies or histories) the last thing that I want to do is read it on an electronic device. I don’t want to have to wonder if I have enough battery life left. I don’t want to wonder if there’s a way to listen to mp3s or read my email on the same device that I’m reading The DaVinci Code on. I don’t want hyperlinks to discussions of the “real” Opus Dei to interrupt the flow of the story. I want to get away from electronic devices and have an experience that isn’t cluttered with pop-ups and hyperlinks.

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  • Markus Pirchner Said:
    “Books need no batteries, no operating systems, no proprietary viewing clients, they have no software glitches, no format incompatibilities, and you can take them to the beach to read them lying in the sun. You can even spill your favorite drink over it (to some degree”

    What he said.

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  • They aren’t searchable.

    Any book printed today is searchable in Google Books (nee Google Print) or Amazon’s Search Inside the Book unless the publisher decides otherwise.

    They aren’t linkable.

    Ever use a library’s electronic catalog? In most online “card” catalogs every field in a book’s bibliographic entry is a hyperlink that allows you to access every other book with matching or similar information. Some libraries are experimenting with free-form tagging, a la Flickr or, allowing users to participate in what was once the esoteric process of cataloging a book.

    They have no metadata. They carry no conversation.

    Books invented metadata, in the form of marginalia and footnotes. The decision to strip most books free of this conversation which in some cases had gone on for centuries was made not by the constraints of the medium but by cost-conscious publishers.

    John makes a good point about your propensity for “all or nothing” arguments. Paper has tangible virtues other than the nostalgia factor, and will likely continue to do so for decades if not centuries to come. The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper (MIT Press, 2002) addresses these advantages which paper continues to afford even in this digital hyperlinked age of ours.

    /one librarian’s rant

  • Books, especially fiction books, are a controllable escape. I read at my leisure without a timetable or deadline.

    Business books about leadership and management are my reading passion. Between online book reviews and bookstore browsing it’s easy to determine where I can find my pleasure.

    My home office bookshelves are filled with knowledge and insight that provide’s a sense of growth, confidence, and fulfillment to my daily tasks. They have have a presence, an energy, that represents hundreds of passionate writers committed to improving lives.

    I love books.

  • Anne

    It’s true the Internet allows for instant corrections. For instance, you can correct the New York Post reporter’s name mentioned in your comments to Keith Kelly.

  • I must be in the minority here, because I completely agree with Jeff – I find the long-form utterly useless and the lack of interactivity infuriating.

  • Anne,
    Touche and thanks!

  • Rod

    I love books too. But I can see a lot of advantages to an electronic book. I’m off on holiday soon and taking my iPod, because it’s a lot easier than taking hundreds of CDs. Something that would let me take the equivalent of hundreds of books would be great too. And, as the iPod has changed the music business, so the electronic book could change publishing. All the out of copyright stuff could be downloaded for free – giving me a big incentive to buy a device. Wannabe authors can offer their stuff for free/cheap – in the same way podcasts are offered now – building up a reputation and fanbase if they’re any good. And it offers new ways of publishing – a guide book I could take on my holiday, that I can plug in for the latest updates instead of the paper version that’s a year or two out of date, and with the ability to offer much more depth than is possible in a printed volume. Decent screen resolution and battery life a must, of course, but it seems to me there’s a big market for whoever gets it right.

  • Some people feel that iTunes robs them of the album experience. There are, after all, many songs that you love today that, upon first hearing it, didn’t catch you right away. The same is true with some authors. The long experience of a book and soaking in an author’s complete thoughts in a book brings you to love what’s said. For example, reading Glenn Reynolds “Army of Davids” is a very different experience than his web site. (I like both.)

    I also agree wholeheartedly with those who chimed in about the unplugged aspect of books. It’s good to be unplugged, for all the reasons stated.

    And I agree with Dave above – my growing library of business and other non-fiction reads are my continuing education by which I benefit and stand on the shoulders of others. I have a hard time seeing that happen in another medium than books. Blue Ocean Strategy, A Whole New Mind, The Wisdom of Crowds… how else would we have accessed this content in a manner that would have engaged us for the length of the content? Audiobooks, or some other audio format? Perhaps, but a book is quite indispensable for many reasons.

  • Another “+” for books, Edward Tufte notes that books have a much higher resolution compared to the computer. The amount of information a person can take in with books/printed content is such a higher rate compared to online content (unless you are rocking dual 30″ monitors) and the material is optimized for the big monitors.

  • Angelos

    I vote for the tactile experince too, plus the beauty of my huge corner bookshelf in the living room.

    I think there will always be a place for that, especially art books, reference books, my old physics and math books from college, my collection of antique books, etc.

    Looking out 5 years from now, when better quality e-book readers will be available, I’m still having trouble picturing what type of book I would read and “discard,” instead of putting on a shelf.

    Even a newspaper, it’s nice to hold, to read over coffee on the deck. Maybe because I stare at monitors all day for work, I feel that paper is an escape.

  • Steve

    I have several hundred year-old books that still work perfectly. What media are you proposing for this grand new experiment? None of the current ones outstrip paper for long-term storage, especially when accuracy is factored in.

    Books are not dead, and it will be a long time before they come close.

  • Jorgenson

    …well said Mr Jarvis.

    Books are indeed outmoded and on the way out. Technology will triumph over whimsy.

    Although our present culture is still heavily wedded to the comforting nostalgia of ‘books’ –new generations will revere ‘books’ as much as we worship the utility of 78 RPM vinyl-records or 8-Track Tapes.

    The current education-establishment devotion to their shoddy ‘textbooks’ is an especially egregious abuse of our young generation… but that’s a long discussion for another day.

    I was always a voracious book-reader (non-fiction ONLY), but haven’t read a full book in years… with such better information sources so readily available.

    I don’t saddle up horses any more either — seems they invented better ways to get around.

  • This is silly, as was last week’s cover story in the NYT Magazine. The whole argument is profoundly anti-intellectual, as is much of what you write, I’m afraid. First of all, great books are timeless. They enter a conversation which continues and echoes back and forth, as they’re debated, disproven, defended or whatever. Perhaps their authors return to the themes later, and updates, amends or simply reaffirms what they’ve already written. To say that print is where words go to die applies only to ephemeral writing, which is most of what’s written, of course. It certainly doesn’t apply to important writing from first-rate minds. Just because that’s not your stock in trade, I think you tend to miss that. So much easier to spend half your waking hours defending Howard Stern and his crucial role in our democracy. Now that’s ephemeral.

  • Bert

    Seems the fiction crowd will want something to hold onto, turn, thumb through. No re-inventing necessary in my opinion. A great book is a great thing (and for 25 cents complete with curled corners is all the better eh Suebob). And what would you call a “real page-turner”? a “real scroller”? Imagine reading Tolstoy with ads for ebay down the side. Meanwhile for the non-fiction crowd it doesn’t really matter – whatever’s easiest, most accessible, easier to verify etc. That just makes sense, at least to me.

  • Quite a long post there Jeff. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new chapter for your up-and-coming book/thesis?

    As a proud owner of thousands of books I can say with great passion that I love being surrounded by them in my beautiful black oak bookshelves.

    But I must confess that every time I move I end up cursing them for breaking my back.

    I certainly can’t argue with your logic with respect to searchability in electronic form. Perhaps that is the great divide? Books are for cosying up to the fireplace and the ‘puter is better at research.

    But as for Blogs vs. MSM there is no comparison. It’s like trying to compare foreplay to immediate gratification (we’ll leave the rest up to your imagination ;-).

  • chico haas

    The comments about a book’s inability to accommodate interactivity and correcting and annotating reminds me of the writing credits in, I believe, 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Play by William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Charles Kenyon and Mary C. McCall”

  • I read books when I want to be immersed. I don’t want a conversation, I don’t want to be interrupted, I don’t want to click onto a detour. I just want to be in the thrall of someone’s story or line of thinking. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve not yet had an experience sitting at the computer that’s come close to Magic Mountain or Catcher in the Rye or Maus.

    It’s late, I’ve had a glass of wine. I hear the beep of the Tivo downstairs clicking through ads. I could watch TV (and I probably would if my kid would watch the NBA instead of Numbers). But I think I’ll go upstairs and read Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee. This is one of the moments in my daily life that I cherish. When I’m ready to forego it, I’ll let you know.

  • At a time of intense pressure from other media—which are more immediately seductive and more addictive—the cult of the book doesn’t have enough devotees to keep the publishing industry afloat. That is the reality of the book business as reflected in very low to flat sales over a sustained period. There has been no growth since I don’t know when, and the prospects for growth of a static product in a dynamic media environment are dim to none. That’s the scope of the problem from a business standpoint. And of course all businesses have to make money. Even—horrors— the book business.

    I wouldn’t go so far as Jeff and say that the entire form needs to be rethought. But I certainly agree that the content of books is far more important than their form—which is just a kind of presentation that we happen to have gotten used to. I can’t imagine prefering another format over a book, but I don’t discount the ingenuity of some entrepreneur with a vision and some great engineering.

    The wonderful tactile experience of the book may even be reproducible sometime down the road . Digitization will come in one form or another. Paper books won’t disappear. They will be printed “on demand,” maybe even as single copies that you download yourself, at the touch of a finger. Maybe they won’t have such nice-looking jackets. Does that matter? Maybe you’ll be able to pay extra and get a special-looking one, and be able to select from a variety of covers. I don’t know—I’m just guessing. The point is that I see no reason to fear any of this. And I certainly don’t see anything anti-intellectual about it. And I see many extraordinary possibilities that are opened up by search and linking.

  • rick_d

    I’m guessing books will die out a fortnight or two after we’ve achieved the Paperless Office.

    My four-year-old has already developed a love of her books, so maybe it’ll take still another generation for e-books to have an impact. It’s certainly a fact that, despite several runs at e-book devices, nobody’s yet come close to a loveable hardware platform. And dollars to donuts the content police will render e-books severely crippled at birth on the software side, no matter how nifty they might be. For God’s sake, don’t let Sony have a run at it.

    Don’t pay me any mind, I still get a paper paper on my front porch each morning.

  • Eileen

    Have you ever read a book you couldn’t put down from morning ’til night and back into morning again? One that you read in the hallway on the way to the bathroom before work or school? Or one that made you almost weep when you turned the last page…because it was over?

    Have you ever experienced that same sensation on the internet, with ads and popups and ‘glitterati’…? I haven’t.

    Have any of you kept your old textbooks from the courses which led you into your chosen/beloved profession? Or those which represent abandoned – or still embraced – passions? Do they represent you…your own history?

    Have you ever held onto another kind of Bible……?

    While I get your drift, Jeff, books most certainly will never be “an outmoded means of communicating information”, unlike the dinosaurs of the MSM and their paper/video trails of crumbs…whose death throes/groans are now utterly palpable.

    [On the other hand, maybe the Akashic Records will soon be digitized? *Smile*, but I doubt even that.]

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  • Stewart

    You’ve provided the statistics that books are selling more in the UK, so how is the book dead? Because Americans don’t read them?!? Ha!

  • Wayne

    I have made the move (almost) entirely to Electronic books. The convenience factor is just too high to ignore. Just last week I picked up a new book for my plane trip … while sitting on the plane before takeoff. I read that book (well, not entirely .. I shut my eyes for about 20 minutes during the flight and let the book software read to me) and backed it up to an online data storage, which is refreshed daily to ensure it will last for as long Earth spins. I don’t anticipate that it will get old, yellow, fragile, or mildewed. I may read it again later. I’ll just peruse my library, regardless of where my body is, and “take it off the bookshelf”. Is this method for everyone? No, we still have some “kinks” to work out that are mentioned in the comments above. But, what will we be able to do in the future with this? We already know how we’ll interact with paper books, should they exist. The same as we have for centuries. I have thought about this topic in much the same light as the author, but had reservations. Now, after seeing the comments that disagree with Jeff, I am forced to recognize the common theme in virtually all rebuts. That common theme is people like books because it is familiar, comfortable, and/or feels good. These are just learned associations that will be different in the future. After all, how much reverence does a small child give to the paperback? Naaa, I’ll stick with my ability to read at night without having to turn on a lamp and keep my wife awake.

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  • Robert Blade

    Today and at least for the forseeable future, books — not the Web, not TV, not movies, not records — are the medium of choice to transmit our culture and heritage from one generation to the next. Granted, books do have a purely symbolic value. Why else would celebrities choose books as the form for their kiss and tell memoirs or academics for their all but incomprehensible prose? But on the bedrock notion of a permanent medium for all of our culture’s most important information, there is no substitute.

  • Clinton

    I couldnt disagree more with the notion that “print is where words go to die.” We have, in the body of “classic litterature”, hundreds of thousands of examples of the opposite; words survuving for centuries– more. Print is in fact the only “medium” in which words have any degree of permanance. Also there is something about the act of writing something lengthy–a novel or something else that changes the nature of the content. Its a true test of authorship. It must either be drivel or brilliant. This type of content isnt offered by works of litterature geared toward internet consumers, and likely never will be ( I dont know about you but my computer chair doesnt offer the comfort of my recliner). The content produced for internet consumption, though stimulating, doesnt bear cannonization. No art form currently in vougue does. Call it decadence if you like, I do and I grant it due deference as with that which we call “the classical”. Its all cyclical, like the weather.
    I like that books require discernment. The internet allows us to find just what we want and, I think, at the expense of balance, well rounded-ness and real perspective. I would not call myself a populist. No matter how unpopular my view is, I think people are more or less idiots. Its not the public that drives artists to create worthy art, the public has the opposite effect and the examples are too numerous (and obvious) to mention (I think Jarvis mentioned the da Vinci code). Its a sense of artistic integrity and the hope for eternal fame that has produced excellent art. If we believe de Toqueville, isolationism is the greatest danger to our “free society”. The internet is isolationism in media; it validates your point of view or your idiocy (if you search enough) while sheltering you from other valid perspectives. This is not to say its not helpful or valid in thousands of ways but god forbid we should pronounce the book to be dead.
    The thoughts presented above are clearly written from an economic perspective. Money alone cannot motivate beautiful creation. It would be a mistake to invest (I mean in every way, emotionally etc.) only in that which sells.

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  • Danny

    Books will never die. Its such a waste of time to claim that they will. Paperwork was supposed to die with the invention of PC’s and it just created more paperwork. Books as you know them will be around as long as there are trees.

  • Stefan Constantinescu

    I can’t agree with you there that people need to stop saying kids these days don’t read. What do you think we do when sitting in front of the computer for 6+ hours a day? As a student attending the University of North Texas I can’t wait for Sony’s e-Book to come out. I saw it at CES and it blew me away. My organic chemistry textbook weighs twice the amount as my laptop. Another annoying thing is my organic chemistry textbook doesn’t have search capabilities.

    Yes books have index’s and glossaries, but in today’s world of CTRL+F, type in a term, hit enter, boom you’re there, I feel slow and awkward having to flip thru lots and lots of pages, then reading useless pages scanning them for a word I need.

    If student’s textbooks were formatted like wikipedia you bet your ass that there would be a book revolution.

    Now as for reading for pleasure… I do not. Instead I browse IMDB (Internet Movie Database) for the top 50 movies of every decade. I’m up to the 80’s now and let me tell you, NetFlix and I have a great relationship!

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  • i agree there is something wrong with the book publishing industry given the number of bad and/or commercially unsuccessful titles issued every year. at a time when more media is being consumed digitally, the book industry shows no indications of changing or adapting. perhaps this is because nothing has challenged how we consume books, unlike the music and movie industries. in any event, you have to wonder how technology such sony’s new reader could change the status quo. stepping up a level, i think you could ask the same questions about every old media player (newspapers, TV, radio, magazines), which are under more of a siege than the book industry – at least for now.

  • NVmojo

    Wow, what a read!

    I will never get over my love for the smell of a freshly printed newspaper and a new book.

    I might also confess, I never could get into reading the Da Vinci Code. I read the first book that was out about the theory the book uses, Holy Blood, Holy Grail or something like that so a fictional account just didn’t grab my attention. Not to see it wouldn’t for others who had never heard of the concept that Jesus moved with Mary Magdelene to another region and raised a family.

    Anyways, good read!

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  • Frank Hood

    OK, I’m late to this conversation, but I’d like to hit a side point here. Number of books printed does not relate very well to number of books sold & read. 172,000 books published last year is not necessarily a statistic to celebrate. You can’t even fit that many actual books, much less titles in your neighborhood Borders.

    Books published by traditional (paying) publishers in the US are probably around 35,000. The rest of these books are vanity press/Print On Demand types that will probably never be read by anyone but the author’s family. We’re probably going through a cycle when everybody that has a book manuscript under his mattress is paying to publish it. After we get over everybody’s joy at finally seeing their ugly baby in print, we may get to the point where good, publishable authors can find their way to an audience via self-publishing with more regularity than twice a decade.

    Flattening the distribution and production model is as interesting as changing the book to an electronic form. ITunes is one thing, but check out Pandora which works even better than the Amazon people-who-bought-this-book-also-bought-these-books links.

  • I’ve tried this post and all the comments, but my eyes are starting to hurt. Is your blog available in paperback yet please?

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  • “I’m going to start teaching this fall and I suspect I’ll be pressured into writing a book”

    We can all hope otherwise. ;o)

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  • Bertie — twenty-five years ago, a daisy-wheel printer cost $3,000. Now you can buy a laser printer for under $100.

    Maybe within a few more years you’ll be able to print out your own paperbound version of this blog or any text from your home (or at the airport, etc.).

    But then your paperback will just be a snapshot of an evolving page, and one you can’t interact with. It won’t capture the real nature of the blog (or of the electronicized book) any more than a snapshot captures the Grand Canyon when you visit it, or Michelangelo’s David. It’ll just be more convenient at times to carry around.

  • Bob Holley

    Books, film, recordings, and other permanent media are important because they establish content at a specific time with a reasonable degree of certainty. Electronic documents can be so easily changed. Think of Orwell’s 1984 and changing history in an electronic environment. One global replace and “Lenin” becomes “Stalin” or “Bush” becomes “Kerri.” I remember reading somewhere how surprised some lawyers were when the opposing side used the Internet Way Back Machine to find earlier versions of Web sites that included evidence against their cases.

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  • Dialogue, handwriting, print, photography, cinema, radio, television, digital: all these things still exist, yet each of them in turn has become the defining media of an era, longer or shorter, only to have their dominance overtaken by the next big thing. None of them have wholly been superseded, because each has its particular communication that it is not only well suited for, but such communication is almost impossible in any other form.

    Debate might still be best done in person–at least the nature of debate changes through blogs and comments. It might be that books were not well suited for handwriting, but notes to myself are, and writing in a personal journal. Philosophy and other extended treatise work well in the printed book but as Neil Postman writes, extended discourse just doesn’t work on television.

    The average time a reader spends on a blog post is 96 seconds. I am a fast reader, but the average is something like 200 words a minute. It is clear that this prohibits some forms of communication. It is explains why blogs are filled with such bad writing.

    It is also clear that novelty is not happening in the world of books–but books will be in print long after we’ve gone beyond the keyboard-and-screen model of computing, on to the next big phase.

  • Andrew Brown’s quoted comments are amusing. I feel compelled to write the following in response:

    Language exists to communicate. Writing exists to symbolically represent language. Fiction exists to entertain (ultimately). The Da Vinci Code communicates a fictional story as written words organised into a book. Millions of readers easily comprehended the story and were entertained by it… And that’s a ‘bad book’?

  • Bravo! And yah-boo-sucks to all those nay-sayers. :-)

    I’ve been working with ebooks for years, and I’m about sick to death of hearing about new ebook devices which “simulate the turning of pages” — “just like a real book”! The reason that progress with ebooks has been so slow is that we have yet to recognise the difference between the medium and the content. Ebooks are a new medium, and need to be approached as such.

    I have no problem with books — I can’t go into a book store without spending $100. But while books are nice for curling up in bed at night with a good story, they suck for things like text books and reference.

    (I will add, in the defence of books, that there’s one advantage over ebooks — when they turn out to be crap, you can throw them at the wall. Very satisfying.)

  • DannyD

    Very amusing, especially some peoples comments like “reading tolstoy with ebay adds”….. Guess they don’t know the difference between websites and ebooks.
    I’ve bought my PDA (in my case a Palm LifeDrive) about 2 months ago and so far have read more ebooks (4) than i have read books in the last 5 years (2).
    And it’s not that these are new books, not at all. I’ve already selected books like Catcher i/t rye, sherlock holmes stories, other classics, that i can download for free and read on my PDA. 3 of the 4 books i read so far though were payed for, and i still have to go back to the ebook website to get an ebook copy of the da vinci code…. for $7! (not that i’ll like it, but at that price i can at least try)
    Actually, 1 of the 3 i bought i haven’t really “read”…. the bible. It’s great to be able to just click 3 times and be at the chapter i want to read.
    Well, that’s about it, or not yet.
    One thing that just crossed my mind… i can always go to the website of some publishers and if i want a book in printed form, order it : print-on-demand ! That way, if i like a book in e-form, i can have it in printed form AFTER reading it : no useless chopping down of trees for a book that MIGHT sell.

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  • azurite

    Hey, can you imagine a time in the future when books will be precious luxury items that only the very rich will be able to afford and enjoy, while the rest of us have to read electronic texts? New titles will be issued primarily as electronic texts with just a few luxury book versions of each produced for the reading pleasure of the very wealthy…

  • Susan

    Of course the number of titles published is a far cry from number of volumes published. The comparison does not necessarily mean Americans are reading/buying fewer books than the Brits, only that we are reading/buying from a narrower range of titles. Also, to get a more complete picture of the size of the American reading public’s appetite, one must consider the popularity of circulating titles available at public and academic libraries throughout the country, not only total volumes purchased. Especially in public libraries, the average work of popular fiction is read by scores of people.

  • re:

    Please ask Jarvis to contact me about this at [email protected]

    We’ll work up something you can include on BuzzMachine, I hope.
    Michael S. Hart
    Project Gutenberg

  • Kristi Tucker

    Books will never be replaced with electronic devices by many….now and in the future. There is a feeling you get from actually holding a good book while reading.

  • I work at a small public library (Oregon’s best small library). In March we loaned 45,000 items. Of that total 50.5% was some kind of media – not books. Well, not books printed on paper. 2,300 (5%) were audio books. People are still reading books, we’re loaning as many books as we did 5 years ago. And now we’re also loaning a lot of media; movies, music, TV shows and audio books. Choice is wonderful.

    The story is important and enduring no matter what the format.

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  • Computers mirror books, as well as a range of visual events. However, they should not be confused with books. Screen based reading actually dissolves books and the future of the codex needs no reference to screen based reading. Search engines provide a reading method that eliminates the coherence of individual books digesting and parsing whole libraries down to word frequencies and search terms. The preservation concern is no longer deterioration of paper, but digital dissolution of books.

    Another thing is that paper books work efficiently to facilitate comprehension. This a factor overlooked. It derives from the haptical attributes of the physical book that use a deep embedded learning path of the hands prompting the mind.

  • Mr. Jarvis refers to a “post scarcity economy.” Let’s see, we have burgeoning human poulation, billions of Chinese about to become major consumers, depletion of natural resources, global warming, etc. ad nauseum. Post scarcity? Which planet is he living on? Oh, I forgot, the planet of cyberspace where there are consumer goods for everyone and all that yummy, nutritious porn! That comment alone leads me to believe that Mr Jarvis is full of crap.
    As for the book not being interactive, isn’t Mr. Jarvis familiar with the concept of THINKING while you read, making notes, discussing it with others? Gee, to think I wasted last weekend reading Jim Harrison and hosting a dinner party for friends when I could have been responding to more blogs. Guess I better get a life, huh?

  • ak stevenson

    The book is not dead and frankly neither is the horse. Want the e-book? Fine. Want a paperback for the beach? Again, no problem. I really don’t think the Amish care if 90% of Americans think they are out moded in their transportation choice and I don’t think it matters to the reader as long as they can access their preferred format.
    What is clearly apparent is that the book will evolve and remain the same dependant on the end user preference and needs. There shouldn’t be a debate on the death of books, but rather how many useful forms of books can be created.
    A note on Wikipedia –Wikipedia marks the democratization of information and like democratic governance to be really successful it requires INFORMED participation. We should really be discussing how to get everyone literate and then how to get them techno-literate instead of the supposed death of books.

  • Linda

    Books are great because they “are frozen in time without means of being updated or corrected.” If I read The Color Purple today and love it, and enjoy it, and learn from it, and mark passages, it will be the same text when I pick it up 10 years from now. I will be different, but the book won’t. If I look at this blog tomorrow, who knows how it will be different from today. Books are valuable because of their consistency and timelessness!

  • Eric McDonald

    While I appreciate the fervour of your views (especially given that most have lost their verve for this argument and are prepared to go either way on the issue), it seems a bit foolhardy to blame the Luddites for your ire. As is customary in our part of the world, market forces will determine the outcome.

    The book is not dead, and no new meme exists to suggest that it will die in even the distant future. We often forget that only 1 billion of 6 billion people can contemplate accessing the internet. Add the literacy rate in the Third World to that equation, and I think we can safely say that bound board and paper are safe for a spell.

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  • “TV proved that we do, indeed, have good taste.”

    Well, at least until reality TV made its appearance.

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  • Jim Kennedy

    Just finished 10-year prison sentence. No Internet allowed. Thank God for books.

  • Matthew Jaquith

    After reviewing the feedback, I’m relieved to see that most of the respondants disagree–in whole or in part–with the author. Books, indeed print in general, offer readers many advantages over digital, but the reverse is also true. It is precisely this point–that print and digital have different attributes which makes both of them valuable–that Jeff’s article obscures. It is not a matter of one or the other, but rather that print and digital texts have different, though often over lapping, purposes.

    In our times, the world of information is growing increasingly complicated. We would benefit from full discussions of the benefits of print and digital, considering both with respect, truth, and intellegence.

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  • you cant smell an ebook!!!
    i love ebooks though because they are the savior of hard to find books.
    we all win!

  • Baetrice

    Just to show how old-fashioned I am, or is it just old? I miss the card catalog that I grew up with in my hometown. It sat right in the middle of a large library. The drawers and the paper cards had a certain smell, feel, and sound. From the librarian point of view I’m sure the upkeep of the computer is much simpler. However, you simply can’t beat those childhood memories. :)

  • L. Caution

    Like several other commentators, I like the portability/read anywhere nature of the book (I find it impossible to conceive of any electronic device that could be as easily read while lying on one’s side in bed), the fact that I can loan it to a friend, buy/sell it at a used bookstore, completely lose myself in another world. I can go into a library and read a book printed(!) in the 18th century – and don’t need any special hardware or software.

    Consider some other electronic media: 8-track tapes, S-VHS and VHS tapes, 3 record formats (78, 33 1/3, 45 rpm), CDs, DVDs. To “keep” a previous generation, one must either keep ancient hardware around and pray it won’t die before you do, or go to the not-inconsiderable expense of buying yet another copy in a different format. (I have records, digitally re-mastered records, CDs of the same music. But each collection is smaller because I cannot afford to buy the latest technical incarnation – if available – for everything). But the books I bought decades ago are still readable with no additional equipment or expense.

    Are there situations where ebooks have advantages? Yes – any time you want/need to have a large number of books at your disposable (you’re on vacation or you’re a consultant who needs quick access to extensive technical information).

    Can the content of some books be improved by interactivity? Yes, of course. Language textbooks come to mind: click on a word or passage and hear it spoken perfectly.

    Audio books are wonderful for people who don’t like to read, can’t read, or spend hours in a car.

    But I mainly wanted to comment on the searchability of an electronic book vs. a “book” book. Some time back, I was trying to find a passage I’d read in a book written by Trollope. (Aside: what are the chances that I will be able to read this blog 100 years from now if I don’t print it out and save it? Maybe, a .txt copy would still be accessible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.). I downloaded a free version and tried a simple search. Oops. All I remembered was that it was a dinner scene – of which the book contained quite a few. I gave up looking for “dinner” after about 15 minutes. Then I went back to the book itself. I knew approximately how far into it the scene had occurred. 5 minutes and I had it.

    This isn’t all that unusual. I have frequently turned to a paperback almanac for a statistic that eluded me after 20 minutes or more of googling. And I am still more likely to pull a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf (about 3 feet from me) than go through the hassle of getting to its web site or my library’s website or, say, locating an ebook, turning it on, plugging it in if the battery is dead, etc., etc., etc.

    So, no. Books will not disappear, if not because of their intrinsic value than surely because of the draconian electronic rights restrictions on electronic versions.

  • Emma

    So I see the book is alive and kicking in the UK. Does this mean that we are writing better books and are greater readers or that we are behind the times!

  • Caroline

    2 points:
    Firstly, there is some content that is more easily used and/or understood in print format. The book is not dead because, in many cases, it makes life easier.

    Secondly, the arguments Mr. Jarvis uses in his commentary seem to imply that because something is old, or if there is a comparable and more technologically-based medium, that means the original is obsolete. Why do people still play the trumpet, the violin or the oboe when synthesizers and sampling technology have been around for at least 30 years? There must be something to these “obsolete” technologies that compel people to devote their lives to them. Similarly, the book is not dead because it provides benefits, tangible and intangible, to readers.

  • “Print is where words go to die”: that depends on the genre. A textbook you might be pressured into writing for your fall class? That could be short-lived, or even (like the first technology title I penned) DOA. But “Pride and Prejudice” isn’t dead, and it fully participates in a long conversation, continuing all the way to “The Jane Austen Book Club” and no doubt beyond.

    It may well be that novels and creative nonfiction move from dead trees to living bytes. Like many librarians, I don’t have a container fetish, so that’s fine–maybe even better, what with shelf space and old-growth forests and whatnot (though I do like writing in my own books, and would expect an electronic book to be as easy to annotate). Also, we in LibraryLand let David Weinberger think he invented this idea because he’s such a nice guy, but we *already know* how frustrating it is–and how limiting–that a book can only be in one physical location at a time. (I manage a digital library where infinite points of access are part of the satisfying experience.)

    I also anticipate that new media will birth new genres, some more participatory and interactive than others. I adore recipes on Epicurious because food preparation is a great example of a running conversation, and I find my own cookbooks far too silent as a result.

    But sometimes–as with the storyteller around the fire, or the children’s librarian with the hand puppets, or a writer such as Jane Austen–we want the author to tell the tale. (Consider how grimly awful most fanfic is.) Let each genre find its natural homes, as future formats allow, and let new genres spring forth from the fertile fields of human creativity.

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  • Electronic ink will solve the problem of not being able to cuddle up with your favorite book at night.
    The ink is microcapsules which can be rotated either on the white side or black side. After they are rotated, they no longer need electricity to keep their orientation.

    So think of it as paper, only not pulp.
    Just as we’ve moved away from rags to wood pulp, we will move away from wood pulp to electronic ink.
    Not in our lifetime, but one day people will treat wood pulp with the same reverance as we do rag linen today.

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  • Who needs a novel that is fully indexed and constantly updated?

  • Hardcover Books will always be a part of the culture. But there is no question that new technologies and communications will help to make books read even more than they have in the past. I should know, because we at have been doing this for the past 5 years. Just look at the proliferation of digital libraries on the web. Gutenberg alone has 2,000,000 ebooks downloads per month. That is good news, and an indication that reading habits are changing.
    On our website, we have a good collection of digital libraries, just go to Bookyards “Library Collections – E Books” at
    There are approximately 350 digital libraries seperated alphabetically and by category, with over 200,000 ebooks

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  • New technologies don’t always (don’t often) entirely replace older ones. Pencils are still useful. Books have many advantages, some of them leveraging what you describe as disadvantages, Jeff — would Anna Karenina really be improved if it could be ‘updated?’

    Moreover, books *are* part of a conversation — all human thinking is part of a conversation (I recommend the work of Bakhtin – russian philosopher of language – on the “dialogical imagination”). Just as I don’t rewrite your blog post but comment on it, so there is a vast conversation surrounding Anna Karenina (or Hamlet, or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

    I.e. the ‘book’ is closely connected to ‘the work’ — for example to a musical composition or a painting. It is precisely that it *can’t* be altered which gives *push* to the conversation around it.

    One could go on and on about the advantages of the book — try riffling through an electronic reader text — but the main point is clear. They aren’t easily replaced.

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  • Scott

    When a new technology is introduced, it also introduces absolutes about the technology it aims to replace. Radio was to replace the newspaper, television was to replace radio – then the movies, now the Web is to replace all forms of media – print, TV, radio, cable…

    The simple fact is we still live in a very analog world. Waste your time instead talking about how the coming digital divide – the split between those who live with technology and participate in life, and those who live for technology and don’t.

    Ask yourself how many cell phones you’ve had in your life so far – how many iPods or laptops. What do we do with them when they have lived their 18-month usefulness? We throw them away and get another. We pile them in our garage, where they wilL wait until we send them to the landfill – either here or in China. But they’ll be worthless, outmoded, and a hazard.

    We’ll sell an old book. Someone will read it again and pass it on to another who will do the same. And I love it when people call it “dead tree” communication. Do they ever consider tree are a renewable source? Take a minute and contemplate what’s inside your mp3 player or laptop? now stack those up and see what they’re made of?

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  • Draegar

    you are a moron get a little sense in fact get a new brain replacements are available from raodkill and dead animals books aren’t dead books ain’t something you read to learn or any such but something to enjoy you can learn from books but the reality is that they are not solely for that purpose you read them for other things pleasure, escapism, etc. moron

  • What book taught you punctuation? And etiquette?

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  • It will be interesting to watch global trends in book publishing, to see if e-books ever steal the thunder from print books, the way e-music seems to be cutting into “printed” music on CD’s.

    There’s an interesting list of sources of statistics on book sales at Google Answers:

    Global Book Sales

    Worth a look.

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  • I know who would love to have books that can be “updated” and “corrected”.


    Need to do something which contradicts your previous writings? *POOF* Now it doesn’t.
    You have completely changed your official line, but old books still are an evidence that you’ve been speaking something completely else just a year ago? *POOF* Now they aren’t. In fact, they serve to re-affirm that your politics have always been the same.

    “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia. A large part of the political literature of five years was now completely obsolete. Reports and records of all kinds, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound-tracks, photographs — all had to be rectified at lightning speed. Although no directive was ever issued, it was known that the chiefs of the Department intended that within one week no reference to the war with Eurasia, or the alliance with Eastasia, should remain in existence anywhere.” — 1984

    In the future, they’ll just have to make a few clicks and poof! No truth.

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  • Peter

    The ‘abuse’ issue is not an insignificant one. Every electronic device currently useable as a text-reader is less durable than any book. All of us are daintily protective of our tech-gadgets in a way that one needn’t be with a print book. This will be dismissed as a minor issue by those whose interests are served by an all-digital future, but for people wanting to read a book without worrying about breaking it or losing it, the difference is significant, and will quietly and subtly influence their buying decision. Books on paper are going to be with us for a very long time.

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  • Jeff Jarvis

    The enclosed essay from the current issue of Evergreen Review is about the destruction of books and book culture by such as you. What is proposing is not only ill-considered but a moral and cultural crime.
    Alan Kaufman

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  • Fuck You

    You, Jeff Jarvis, are truly undermining civilization. Congratulations. Here come the dark ages.

  • Book and its content never dies neither the lesson that we learn upon reading the content. The image of a book don’t matter. what matters most is how it gives us knowledge.

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  • Jorge Colorado

    10 years later, the paper book is still here: “The latest numbers for 2014 book sales tell a surprising tale. Nielsen BookScan, which tracks what readers are buying, found the number of paper books sold went up 2.4% last year, including at Amazon and all types of bookstores.”

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