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Feature Articles

The Decline of the Book and Its Impact on Society.
by L. Edith Featherstone, January 19, 2012.


English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

Image via Wikipedia

I am one of those rare individuals who doesn't own a cell phone, iPad, or gaming system . I'm not against gadgets; I just don't buy these things until I either have a need for them, or their earlier version that I already own wears out or breaks. If it weren't for my mother's addiction to new technologies, I wouldn't have an iPod and would probably still be using my discman.


And my thriftiness isn't just confined to gadgets, but extends to everything I own. Despite my pragmatic approach, friends wrongly assume I have an aversion to anything created past 2000. This is why friends are always surprised to hear that I have read the majority of my books online for years--long before the eReader became available.


The eReader is common now, but before this gadget became available, people would criticize my choice to read online, mostly arguing in favor of the aesthetic virtues of the printed book. I have always read a lot, caring only about the content, and I am not dissuaded from reading online by any romantic notions of loving the smell or feel of a book in my hands. I do love those qualities in a book as much as I adore going into a bookstore or library to browse, read, or delight in finding something unexpected and interesting. But I just cannot ignore the advantages of wanting to read a particular novel or author and being able to do so within a couple of minutes of the idea entering my head. I don't have to venture out into the cold, only to find out once I'm there that the library either does not have that particular book (which I want to read even more now that I have made the effort) or that it has already been borrowed.


Aesthetic nostalgia remains reader's most common argument against new ways of accessing books with gadgets like Kindle. Many valid points were raised in favor of the book during a panel discussion at last year's Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in which participants weighed the pros and cons of digital reading. Author Andrew Piper noted the importance of sharing moments with your children as they sit on your lap while reading a bedtime book together.


image via flickrOthers noted that humans have an inherent need to collect things, and wondered about the future of promoting authors through book signings or readings without a physical copy being available. The act of reading was discussed, with it being described as a solitary activity in which people will frequently pause to reflect upon what they are reading while curled up on a couch or restfully sitting in bed. All wondered about future generations reading less if the publishing industry was unable to continue printing books.


What the panelists described--the intimacy of reading--can be achieved with eReaders. You can still curl up on the couch just as easily as you would with a book, and I find it illogical that one would ponder less on a book's content because of its format. It's true that the industry is changing, with publishing houses, book chains such as Borders, and libraries closing. This doesn't mean that people are reading less, though. If Amazon's surging sales is any indicator, (up 51% since they began selling their Kindle eReader), the general public is on board with digital reading.


In a speech to the North Carolina Library Association, member, Thomas Moore, put forth a compelling argument when he wondered what the ideal future book might look like in terms of form and function. He concluded that it must be user-friendly, economical with no need for batteries, and that it pose no significant problem if the devise is lost or stolen--essentially, a book!


However, Moore omits all the many advantages eReaders like Kindle have to offer. The Kindle is user-friendly, economical, and while you would have to replace the Kindle if you lost it, you are at least able to retrieve the books lost with it. Furthermore, he doesn't mention the convenience of having up to 1400 books available at your finger-tips wherever you are in the world, the millions of free books available for download, and the numerous features available such as being able to adjust the text size or share the book with friends. Moore closes his speech by expressing his desire for his daughter to experience the joys of entering a library full of books. He fears that with the popularity of e-books, libraries will become a thing of the past. This is something I, too, fear greatly.


Like many others, I don't believe books will be eliminated entirely. For me, the more pressing issue is the number of public library closures in North America and the potential lack of access to reading materials for those living below the poverty line. Whichever side of the debate you are on, many of us could at least afford an eReader if, in the worst -case scenario, the printed book were to either become obsolete or all libraries were to close. But what about our fastest growing segment of the population--the poor? How are these people to access the wealth of reading material we have the privilege to?


Thankfully, widespread closures have not happened in Canada as they have in the US. In fact, Montreal's Grande Bibliotheque du National's membership has grown 17% in the past 5 years. This is largely due to the library adapting to the public's changing needs. It has restructured its system, going beyond simply lending books to becoming cultural learning centres. In addition to the many new services available and events being held throughout the building and in its auditorium, the library has succeeded in accommodating the public's desire for convenience and availability, offering over 200, 000 titles available for download to member's compatible eReaders. There's no need to worry about late fees, as "books" are automatically returned on their due date.

                                                                                                 image via Flickr

With few public library closures in Canada, the switch from paper to electronic books will not have an impact on access to information and learning to those living below the poverty line, regardless of whether those citizens have eReaders or not. This isn't the case in the US , where 20% of its citizens not only cannot afford eReaders but do not even have internet access. The advent of the eReader has not decreased the amount that people are reading, but if libraries continue to close because fewer people are using them or are unwilling to support them through donations or tax dollars, it will undoubtedly have a significant impact on their poorest segment of the population who already grapple with a lack of education. We have forgotten that to argue the virtues of the printed book or e-book is a privilege, and that there are those in our society being left out of the discussion.

1 Comment

Interesting topic I hadn't really thought about the possible implications of e-readers until now. I spent a lot of time as a youngster in the neighborhood libraby and I would be sad if the day came when libraries were obsolete. I hope there will always be adequate support both in membership and financially so that does not occur. Unfortunantly, I don't see technology slowing down anytime soon.

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