For hundreds of years the word “book” has suggested a stack of printed pages bound together along one edge and filled with ideas in the form of ink. But this is quickly changing. Today we live in a world where the phrase “reading a book” no longer necessarily invokes an image that includes paper and ink. In the past decade, e-books and electronic publishing have emerged as an important force within the marketplace of ideas, and their influence will likely become only more pronounced in the coming years. In the past 24 hours, you have probably read more words on an electronic screen than you have on printed pages. I know I have. As someone once sung, the times they are a-changin’.
A similar phenomenon is taking place in the struggle between brick and mortar bookstores and their online competitors. When Borders filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy last year, it was another reminder that traditional bookstores are struggling to keep their heads above water and that many are losing the fight.
The future of physical books and traditional bookstores remains an open question. Fifty years ago, few could have predicted the rise of e-books and online businesses. One can only guess what the publishing industry will look like fifty years from now. But many readers would be very sorry to see such cultural mainstays disappear altogether.
Eric McKiddie recently suggested ten reasons why physical books are still better than e-books (cf. this post). While I don’t find all of his reasons for preferring physical books equally compelling, a number of his reasons certainly resonate with this bibliophile. Let me add to his list an eleventh reason that ties these two trends together: e-books do not lend themselves to bookstores (including ones like this). Some cultural forecasters have predicted that both traditional bookstores and physical books may be headed for the dustbin of history. I, for one, hope such predictions are wrong. Bookstores have long provided a central marketplace for ideas. And if bookstores disappear altogether we will have lost an important venue for such exchange.