Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Sky Is Falling or How to Prepare for the Death of the Book

“In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends imprisoned by an enchanter in paper and leathern boxes.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

January Magazine is participating today with the Love of Reading Online Book Fair. (The Fair itself is here. We provided a little background on it a few days ago here.)

Book fairs -- electronic and otherwise -- are delicious because they get us thinking about books and their place in our lives. Or, maybe more accurately, the place where books fit into our lives. It’s a spot that’s been changing over the last decade. Or has it?

Since the dawn of the electronic age, people have been talking about the death of the book. After all the book was designed centuries ago. It is a musty idea. Archaic. How is it possible it’s lasted even this long? Here we have electronic options. Hyperlinked hypertext accessible in hyperspace. Smooth, streamlined, you feel au courant just thinking about it. How can a musty old book compete with any of that?

And yet, here we are, fully 25 years beyond the point where I first heard someone forecast the death of the book. The book in traditional form survives -- nay thrives -- because it works. It’s a good design. It’s practical. (You start at the beginning, work your way to the end. Unless you don’t want to. In which case you can read it any ol’ way you like.) The book is mobile. (Take it camping. Take it in the car. Take it to the Moon.) Books don’t need much power. (The power of your brain. The power of your heart. No batteries required.) Best of all, books are unlimited in potential and in scope. (Limited only by imagination.)

This is not to say that electronic books have no place. They will. They do. But they have become part of the conversation about books. It’s a conversation that grows louder, stronger and more vibrant every day.

“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.” -- John Milton, Areopagitica (1644).