My Kingdom For a Book

I’d like to preface this page by saying that if you are ever looking for a way to make a creative writing major or even an English Literature major angry, chances are you can anger most by telling them that in five years nobody will be buying books anymore. I would argue, in fact, that in ten years books will be relegated to museums and by the time I am a grandparent, owning a paperback will be cause for bragging.

Now I’d like to ask you, reader, to do me a favor. Click on the video below and listen to Matthew Macfayden (who plays Mr. Darcy in the 2005 movie remake of Pride and Prejudice) read an excerpt from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice novel.

Now, if you own the book in its paperback form, pick it up and read the first page.

Yeah, right.

First of all, how many of you reached for your e-book (Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.)? And how many were more than satisfied just sitting back and listening to the sultry voice of Matthew Macfayden reading aloud, knowing very well that you were not going to do any reaching for any books because you were on the INTERNET and darn it,  no books will be read during your web surfing time!

It feels like just yesterday in high school history class I was learning about the importance of books; how they made the dispersion of knowledge possible, how they allowed people who weren’t of the upper class to rise up the social ladder through this new found knowledge, and how they gave everyone an equal shot at having a voice. This article by Irene Piechota states that the print writing system was one of the markers of civilization’s progress from a hunter-gatherer structure to more permanently settled villages. By the 1500’s, the use of the printing press throughout Western Europe made the sharing of ideas easier and access to other people in other parts of the world became possible. It’s hard for us now to imagine what a special thing it was back then to begin to understand people and places outside your immediate area, all because you had access to them through words on paper. Stories about new lands and strange people came on pieces of paper, compiled in a portable format that could be not just passed from one person to the next, but copied and dispersed on a mass level.

Then, we entered into the age of technology, and the paper page began to be replaced by the screen. Interactive, colorful, and shiny, the screen and the many possibilities hidden within it became the center of attention, and the new favorite way to share stories. What happened to the novelty of the physical book? Was it environmental groups that made us think twice about how many trees are “killed” in the printing process? Perhaps it’s our love of technology that makes us feel that reading off a back-lit screen is more efficient, more personal, and more individual than scanning bookstore shelves surrounded by – heaven forbid – other people.

Think I’m being dramatic? I bet Mark Sweney doesn’t think so…

“Amazon and Barnes & Noble have both reported more ebooks are being sold than paper books. The growth in the ebook market has been so strong, it’s led some publishing pundits such as Mike Shatzkin to predict that an 80% ebook world for straight narrative text is coming in 2 to 5 years.”

Guess who else is freaking out about the e-book craze: librarians. Can we take a minute and think about the consequences of the e-book for local libraries? Since their conception hundreds of years ago, libraries have relied on the idea that people will always want a place to gather where they can pick up a book of their choosing, borrow it for a while, then return it.


It’s safe to say that librarians around the world are having aneurysms left and right as we speak. But wait, is this really cause for panic? After all, the diffusion of knowledge is still achieved by e-books, maybe even more readily so since books co at the mere click of a button. But my real question is…what happens after the e-book? Where can we possibly go from here?

Think about it…how many of us know the story of Pride and Prejudice not because we’ve read the book, but because we’ve seen one of the many film adaptations? When you think of Elizabeth Bennet, is Keira Knightley’s face the one that comes to mind? If so, that’s probably because you’ve seen the film, which is one of at least 4 films and a couple mini-series.

Here’s a fun tidbit: I searched the trailer for the 2005 film, and what was even more interesting than the trailer itself were the comments, including:

Should i just not read and watch the movie instead? I am reading chapter 19 but now I see this trailer xD (blackouttjj)

And then there’s this…

Have you by any chance come across The Lizzie Bennet Diaries? It’s a modern adaptation of Pride & Prejudice in video diary format. I highly recommend it, you and any one else might enjoy it. (megaharuko25)

I had to wait until page 6 of comments before anyone even mentioned having read the FULL book. Instead, there were suggestions of Pride and Prejudice & Zombies, character video diaries, and the usual Youtube insults back and forth.

This is how I feel after reading Youtube comments

Now, I will say that the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice is..well..simply magical. I can’t deny that. However, I am also amazed at how many people feel like they don’t need to read the book because the film is available at their fingertips, and apparently watching a pretty movie is much more stimulating than reading page after page of black letters books on tapeon a white page.

And what about “books on tape” better known as audiobooks since we don’t really use “tapes” anymore? iTunes is making audiobooks very accessible, cheap, and in doing so is eliminating the need to put your eyes to a piece a paper.

Take a look at the 2nd most popular book on tape, seen on the left.

And it’s not just that book, the audiobooks section is overflowing with classic novels from the literary canon, and if they’re being listened to on iTunes, I bet they’re not being read in print quite as often.

We have seen that thanks to this technological era, the paperback book is quickly becoming obsolete, but will this also mean the decline of the book as the conventional mode of storytelling? I think it might…

As Julie Bosman points out in her article in the New York Times, “The growth of the e-book has forced a conversation in the publishing industry about which print formats will survive in the long term.” The recent merging of two of the biggest publishing companies in the business, Penguin and Random House, has made this conversation all the more poignant. Bosman leaves us with this thought,

“as e-books become more affordable and better aligned to the mass-market reader, I would have to say that I don’t think there are encouraging signs that print mass-market books will rise again.”

You may be thinking,  “Well, this doesn’t sound that bad to me. There’s no difference between an e-book and a print book anyway. A story is a story, right?” Well you may want to read this blurb about the ways that reading an e-book differs from reading printed text. Pay special attention to the comments…some of which I might add are VERY heated.

Why so serious?joker

Maybe because e-books are doing things we never imagined they would; going so far as to change the way that parents and their kids communicate, changing the way kids learn, and shaping their attention span. This is all the result of simply changing the format in which a story is presented. Parents can’t help their child turn the pages of that e-book, letting them feel that tactile paper between their fingers. They have to have the screen tilted to just the right angle so that the glare doesn’t obstruct the words. Oh, and if you feel like reading outside, that will cost you a little extra, because not all e-books block out the glaring rays of the sun.

With an e-book, the way that we share knowledge will inevitably change. Personally, I love being able to share a paperback book with a friend. If I read a great book, I want to be able to hand it off to someone so they can read it too. This can’t really be done with an e-book. Sure, I can suggest that they purchase the book, or that they download it on their Kindle, but how will I know if they ever actually decide to read it? It’s not like I can ask for my book back, sit down with the person, and discuss what we’ve read together quite as easily. Having that paperback obligates you to read it and return it.

On the left is a picture of the new Kindle Fire. It exemplifies the endless possibilities contained in an electronic book. It is one screen, its contents malleable and ever-changing. The screen is the home of the “image” and right now, the image is much more enticing to us than words alone. On the right is a screenshot from a page of Pride and Prejudice. It’s simple, clean, and some would say dull. The book is the home of words, but the screen is the home of the image.

E-books are now competing with even more stimulating forms of electronics. The Kindle as it first appeared was similar enough to a piece of paper, but the new Kindle Fire shows us that e-books are becoming more and more like iPads and less like a piece of paper. Although many e-books are still trying to keep things simple, I think it’s only a matter of time before the entire format of a story changes, and the idea of blocks of black text on a white page becomes extinct, because it’s perceived as dull.

ipad cartoon

So is this my future, a future where printed books are nearly unrecognizable to young generations? I’m going to say yes. Print books will be:

  • scarce
  • novelties
  • antiques
  • rarely used
  • absent from schools
  • replaced by e-books

If you disagree, please say so. I’d love to be told I’m completely off base here. But given recent merging of publishing companies, the fall of print book sales and rise of e-book sales, the younger generations’ aptitude for acquiring and understanding technology, I think the argument is difficult to refute.


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