Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"The Book Is Dead!!" She Said

Like it or not, the book is dead

Margaret Wente

Globe and Mail //Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010 3

Attention, Giller shoppers! Are you one of those keeners who’s impatient to get your hands on that hot new winner that they printed only six dozen hand-bound copies of? No need to wait! Go to Wal-Mart. Buy a Kobo e-reader for $98, which is no more than the cost of three or four print-on-paper books, and download The Sentimentalists for $14.95. If it turns out to be a stinker, don’t throw your e-reader across the room. It’s already pre-loaded with a hundred other books, plus four Harlequin romances available exclusively to patrons of Wal-Mart.

Or you can just download the entire Giller short list straight to your laptop or phone, for under 80 bucks.

What explains the furor over the initial unavailability of the Giller-winning book? Does the literary set just not get it? They still seem to think that books aren’t real unless they’re printed on dead trees, trucked all over the country, stacked in warehouses, and shelved in stores until they hit the remainder table.

But the physical book is going the way of the vinyl record, and the roll of film and the phone with cord. If you’re sad about that, be happy for the forests. Frankly, about the only downside I can see to the e-book is that, if you drop your e-reader in the bathtub, it won’t dry out.
I never thought I’d feel like this. I love books. I buy squillions of them. For 40 years, I dragged my book collection after me like a sack of magic rocks, secure in the knowledge that, if I happened to be housebound for the next decade, I’d never run out of stuff to read.

My books were a statement of my identity. They said: “Here’s the kind of person who reads the poetry of William Blake.” The fact that I haven’t read the poetry of William Blake since grad school was irrelevant. You never know when you might want to.

Eighteen months ago, we moved from a house to what we thought would be a short-term rental. My husband pestered me so much that I agreed to get rid of half my books. I donated them to a book sale, on the off chance that somebody might leap at the opportunity to acquire a mouldy copy of Blake’s Complete Works. I put the rest in storage until we had a home for them again.
Here comes the awful truth: I miss my cherished books about as much as I miss the warped Beatles LPs I left in my mother’s basement.

Tipping points come faster now. Just three years after launching its Kindle e-book reader, Amazon sells more e-books than books in hardcover. The big-box stores are loading up on cheap e-readers, which they bet will be this season’s iPod. One expert, quoted in The New York Times, predicts that, within a decade, fewer than 25 per cent of all books sold will still be print on paper. So what if my beloved Blake is decomposing in a landfill? I can read him any time I want, virtually for free.

As George Will points out in Newsweek, three years ago, Facebook had 50 million users, mostly under 24. Today, it has half a billion users, almost half of whom are over 35. It took 2½ years to sell three million iPods, two years to sell three million Kindles, and 80 days to sell three million iPads. It takes 30 seconds to download Moby Dick, and it costs $2.49.

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