Is It Time to Kindle Print?

burning books.jpgThe founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, declares in a Newsweek interview:

[T]he physical book really has had a 500-year run. It's probably the most successful technology ever. It's hard to come up with things that have had a longer run. If Gutenberg were alive today, he would recognize the physical book and know how to operate it immediately. [Yes, but would he be turning over in his grave? ET] Given how much change there has been everywhere else, what's remarkable is how stable the book has been for so long. But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever.

Do you still read books on paper?

Not if I can help it.

(Thanks to Dan Bloom for the link.)

The rhetoric of an inevitable future can be a great marketing weapon on the high-tech battleground, as Bill Gates showed with The Road Ahead (1996), which was spot-on -- except for two Web-powered bubbles and one unforeseen Google. Yes, destiny can be an illusion.

And what does a "run" mean, anyway? Some innovations are abandoned for others in less than a decade, while others go on for centuries. Eyeglasses have had an even longer run than print, 700 versus 500 years. In science, the tools of glassblowing hasn't changed much in two millennia, or at least hadn't in 2005 when I attended a local lecture-demonstration about the craft. (Household glassware and light bulb production were largely automated in the nineteenth century, but not advanced products.)

Think of music. The keyboard arrangement as we know it is older than movable type, having survived many proposed alternative designs, and the piano is still going strong at 300-plus, virtually unchanged for almost half that time. Chemists are still probing the secrets of seventeenth-century Strads and Guarneris, the gold standard for today's luthiers.

And consider energy. Wind turbine electrical generators, descendants of late-medieval mills, date from the 1880s and were considered obsolete, along with decentralized power sources, by early twentieth-century utilities. The 1970s energy crisis even brought back woodburning stoves not so different from Ben Franklin's model.(For a global view of mistaken prophecies, see The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton.)

Sales of electronic books are indeed climbing rapidly now, but all trends level out. E-books and electronic subscriptions will reach some balance of market share with print, a proportion nobody can predict. (See Nicholson Baker's wonderful review of his experiences with different modes of reading.) Meanwhile paper has remained surprisingly resilient.  The formerly imperiled Encyclopaedia Britannica is available in a new 2010 print edition. Recession or no, Carl Jung's nine-pound mystical Red Book is a runaway success at nearly $200 a copy. And many librarians and curators believe that illustrated children's books may be entering a new golden age; the last one ended almost 100 years ago. Cultural doomsaying -- yes, down to the Hitler card -- and Mr. Bezos' self-serving utopianism are mirror-image dogmas.

Whatever your reading preference, there's more than tradition and habit at stake. The Kindle e-book is not a product but a license, and not even a done deal. Before you buy a Kindle, read the whole contract that you are signing. Especially this paragraph:

Amendment. Amazon reserves the right to amend any of the terms of this Agreement at its sole discretion by posting the revised terms on the Kindle Store or the Amazon.com website. Your continued use of the Device and Software after the effective date of any such amendment shall be deemed your agreement to be bound by such amendment.

As the Orwell affair of summer 2009 showed, license agreements are no mere formality. Legally as well as materially, paper is robust and code is brittle. Papyri of ancient Egyptians' letters to the crocodile god are likely to survive many of our digital wares. As I was preparing this post, I searched for a discussion on pro-electronic blog with a point of view like the new one of Mr. Bezos. See for yourself: printisdeadblog.com.

Competition from electronic displays may benefit printed books by provoking new attention to their distinctive features, as the children's book renaissance shows; I'll have more to say about that in a later post. And if Amazon continues to lose interest in print, there might be opportunities for the independent bookstores that have survived online competition, chains, and discounters. As for the printed book's death watch, I can only repeat the conclusion of Mr. Bezos' interview: "Not if I can help it."

Illustration source: Nuremberg Chronicle, by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), from http://www.beloit.edu/~nurember/book/images/Miscellaneous/ {{PD-Old}}, via Wikimedia Commons


Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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