Opinion/Analysis: Books? What Books?

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“This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today,” said Tom Wayne as he set fire to dozens of books outside of his Kansas City bookstore, Prospero’s Books. Wayne, however, wasn’t burning books to destroy the knowledge contained within them. He chose to desecrate dozens of books as a protest against “society’s diminishing support for the printed word.”

As a format, the book is becoming less and less popular in the modern world. The arrival of the Internet, and the boom that is Web 2.0, has provided citizens with access to dozens of new types of reading materials. Blogs, eBooks, online newspapers, and more provide the casual reader with access to more than enough information, leading to a significant drop in the number of adults who read books for pleasure.

Print, Meet Digital

But is Wayne right? Is America, as a society, finished reading books? The format itself is more alive than ever. The printed word, however, may very well be on its way out. Newspapers and magazines are finding it increasingly important to build a web presence. Titans of “Old Media,” such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., are building web presences. Books, too, are finding more of a home on the Internet. Sony’s helping to digitize books and reading materials with their innovative Sony Reader. Google and Amazon have showed off Google Books and “Search Inside the Book,” two services that make it ever easier for users to both read, and analyze books.

The Change

At this stage, the future of books remains to be seen. While society is seeing a large transformation from the physical written word to the intangible word, we’re seeing an increased output. Today, the web doesn’t just make it easier to read, it makes it easier to write. The millions of blogs on the Internet no doubt have spurned a new generation of readers and writers. Those that write, seeking to find readers for their content, peruse other blogs as well. As previously mentioned, newspapers like the New York Times finally see increased value in the Internet. The majority of their content is online, and an easy to use newspaper-like interface, for those who prefer it, is available. Zinio Reader also makes it easy for users to download magazines, or have them pushed, to their desktops for easy reading. While it might be difficult to read from a computer screen, it’s occupying more and more of our time.

That’s not a bad thing. It has, however, changed the way we focus our attention, and the way we perceive a piece of writing. The nature of the Internet lends itself to shorter entries, not lengthy text entries. While the previously mentioned Zinio Reader helps to mimic the feel of a real magazine on a computer, and Sony’s Reader is rather similar to a book, consumers won’t see something as easy to read as a physical book or a magazine for years to come. Wired Magazine covered the “snack culture” in a previous issue, explaining that society has come to expect short snippets of text and entertainment, as opposed to the lengthier features we find in commercial productions like feature films and books.

Digital, Meet Print

For those still interested in reading books, however, the web has made that easier as well. Sites like LibraryThing and Shelfari give users an unprecedented set of tools to use in their quest for the perfect book. Now, with a single click, users can access reviews, analysis, book information, and more. In addition, they can talk about the book with friends and other website participants, making the necessity of proximity a thing of the past for those looking to form book groups. The new services also seek to replace librarians. Along with Amazon’s backend for book recommendations, the two new services hope to provide suggestions to users on books they might like by utilizing the books they list in their profile. Do librarians know of every book you’ve liked and disliked? I doubt it.


The change has already been initiated. Thousands of individuals rarely pick up books anymore, trading the heavy, physical medium for something accessible everywhere and any time: the Internet. Those without experience on the Internet will protest the day when readers banish books to a dark corner of their rooms, but I, for one, will applaud that day, for it will herald the arrival of a new era; one where people both contribute their literary works and read the works of others with a higher frequency than ever before.

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