Burning Question: Is the printed book dead?

Earlier this year I drove down to Columbus with some friends to hear the noted author (and Kenyon parent) Anna Quindlen read from her new book. We had a lovely evening, not least because of Ms. Quindlen's virtuoso performance. In the middle of a long, grueling book tour, she was able to bring a freshness and immediacy both to her personal remarks and to the reading itself. She spoke rapturously about her childhood, about Saturdays when she would curl up in an over-stuffed chair and read a book for hours, despite her mother's pleas to go outside and play.

It's a delicious image, evocative to many of us of about the same age. But I also remember sitting in a chair listening to the Beatles and Brahms on vinyl long-play recordings. Sadly, I'm pretty certain that books printed on paper will soon go the way of LPs--rare, arcane objets, targeted to a particular niche of nostalgic consumers.

For we are now within hailing distance of electronic devices that will be cheap enough, durable enough, and with screens easy enough to read, that the texts of books will be downloaded from websites en masse, the way music now is to MP3 players. In Gatwick Airport recently, I spied a stylish not-so-young man manipulating the Sony Reader, an early version of these devices, with others no doubt soon to follow.

The economics of this arrangement are obvious: almost all the soaring costs of production will disappear, especially the cost of paper. Distribution will be easy and instantaneous. The dire significance for bookstores is easy to imagine. It will be very rare in five or ten years, I believe, to find stores that stock printed books on their shelves.

Will this leave many old fogies like me frustrated and dissatisfied? Of course. But not enough to compete with the vast market forces that are sweeping this change, and us with it, along.

What will be lost? Among other things, the physical pleasures accruing in the thinginess of an individual book--the heft, the smell, the immediacy of ink and paper. The book is a material artifact of careful design, editing, and production, a collaboration beyond the work of an individual author. That thinginess conveys a kind of enduring reality that will be sustained on library shelves and bedside tables. Treasured books can be savored, saved, shared. Even books we think of merely as ideal beach reads can be passed along by hand.

The e-book, however, will only accelerate, I suspect, a culture in which books are produced like fast-food burgers--transitory tastes, satisfying in a certain way, but consumed and forgotten. So much for ars longa.

Yet, truth is, we'll all adjust. Two years ago, the Kenyon Review began accepting submissions only on the Internet. At first, when I received longer pieces to consider for publication, I tended to print them out. No longer. Most of the time now, I sit at my desk and read comfortably enough on the computer screen. It's not ideal, but I've learned to live with it.

You can imagine that, as editor of a venerable, printed literary journal, I find that all of this makes me a bit queasy. For thirteen years I've promised that, as long as I'm editor, there would be a printed version of the Kenyon Review. I confess I'm no longer so sanguine about that promise. Five years? Yes, I think so . . .

The world of literary publishing is changing almost by the day. Over and over again I find myself remarking to my students that they are living at an incredibly exciting moment. They're riding the curl of dramatic change, change that will, I believe, reach deep into our culture. But it's a scary process, too, at least to me, because I'm not at all certain whether that wave will safely expire on a beach, or smack up against a great but still-invisible rock of a reality we didn't correctly anticipate.

If some of what I've written sounds dire, I do always believe in the capacity of human creativity. Much will be lost, yes--of that I have no doubt. But as with every other great transformation in human communication, from oral recitations of the epics that carried memory of tribes and peoples with them, to the evolution of written texts, and then, half a millennium ago, the Gutenberg revolution, and now to the blossoming paradigms of electronic media, much is gained as well. My students and their students, and their students in turn, will surely find and create new modes and new media for literary expression.

David Lynn teaches workshops in fiction writing as well as literature courses.

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