I'm a big fan of Nathan Bransford's blog, which you can find here. Nathan asks thought-provoking questions that, in turn, prompt interesting conversations.
On Wednesday, he asked about the future of books.
Reading the ensuing comment trail, I was struck by how intense people get when discussing this question. I've seen this dynamic again and again whenever the issue surfaces as to whether the physical book will be replaced by digital technology.
The only comparison I can make is to the sort of polarized debates that pop up whenever politics or religion are discussed. People immediately choose sides and then hurl verbal volleys at each other from their respective corners.
What's that about?
Both religion and politics are preoccupied with core values and moral codes. In other words, both deal with the questions of "What is right versus what is wrong?" and "How do I define my hierarchy of values; what's important to me?"
Most societies end up developing symbols for their value systems so that people who think alike can quickly identify each other. Followers of Islam have the star and crescent, Jews have the star of David and Christians have the cross. In like manner, in the U.S., the donkey is the symbol of the Democrats while the elephant is the symbol of the Republicans. These symbols become shorthand for what the individual believes in.
So what is it about the book and its place in society that prompts such fervent debate? What does the book represent to people?
Sometime back, I spent a couple of years in therapy. To this day, I think of therapy as the most luxurious thing a person can do for himself. I'd take an hour of therapy over an hour spent on a bubble bath, a manicure, or a full-body massage any day of the week.
Therapy wasn't easy. I was forced to drag things I'd rather forget out of the corners of my mind. But, in the process, I also came to understand my core values and my personal set of symbols.
I grew up in a chaotic, occasionally abusive household. Books represented stability, continuity and rationality to me. I could escape the unpredictability and sudden violence by losing myself on the printed page.
That's powerful mojo. Books became the personal charms of my childhood, the shield I used to ward off trouble. Holding a book in my hand was a comforting tactile experience, giving me the same solace a Christian might derive from holding a cross.
Although I'm now an adult, I still surround myself with books because the connection in my brain is permanent; there's an emotional association between books and "safe haven." But, intellectually, I now have some distance and can view the book as just another medium of delivery.
That's all it is--a medium of delivery. Any other importance we attach to the concept of "book" has more to do with the way we individually assign meaning to the book as a symbol than it does with the book itself.
The value of the book does not lie in its cover or its pages or its binding. The value of the book is in what it delivers--information, inspiration, entertainment, philosophy, whatever. But that same message can be delivered in multiple ways.
And the varying methods of delivery shouldn't matter. No medium of delivery is more valuable than another except insofar as individuals assign that value in terms of their convenience and personal taste. The material within will still be the same.
I said on Nathan's blog that this is not an "either/or" proposition. If you want to read your book in hardback, go for it. If Tom wants to read his in e-book format, more power to him. If Sally wants to listen to an audio book, way to go, Sally. IT DOESN'T MATTER.
Does your boss care whether you came to work on foot, by bus or in a car?
Because it doesn't matter. The end result--that you arrived at work and are at your desk ready to begin the day--is the important thing.
This is about having more choices, not whether one choice is better than another. If I read Moby Dick on my PDA, I will still have read Moby Dick.
I've said before that I think ecology and economics will decide the issue of hard copy versus electronic. If a physical book is important to you and you're willing to pay the price, you'll still be able to buy one.
If you find yourself on one side or the other of the book/e-book debate and you can see nothing but your own position, I'd encourage you to think about what your choice represents to you. Do hard copy books represent tradition or authority? Do e-books represent change--either wanted or unwanted?
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer had an article on May 8 regarding Bill Gates' predictions for the future. He said:
Reading is going to go completely online . . . somewhere in the next five-year period we'll hit that transition point, and things will be even more dramatic than they are today.
While I think Mr. Gates is right, the issue is almost irrelevant to me these days.
I'm more interested in what the fallout will be.