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What If a Book...

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What if a book isn't like a record?

Commentators outside the book business usually pose the issue in the reverse. Books, they claim, are just like music records and CDs. And since information in a book can be downloaded into an e-book in the same way that music can be loaded onto an iPod, books and records must share the same fate. Although e-books are now probably no more than about 15% of all books published, these commentators would have you believe that the printed book is in dire straits.

Some within the digerati class have written off the printed book entirely. Take John Biggs, who writes a blog called TechnoCrunch.com. He seems absolutely certain that by the year 2025 books will be "at best, an artifact and at worst a nuisance." That's not a result he seems to lament, but he concedes that this development might be upsetting "if you're currently in the book sales racket" (Sept. 27, 2011). We probably need a generic name for people who espouse this viewpoint. I suggest "techno-twit."

Not so fast with the obituaries.

Books printed on movable type have been around for 573 years ever since Gutenberg printed his famous bible. Arguably, the invention of printed books is the most important invention in history. So anyone who claims that the demise of records points inevitably to the end of books needs to take into consideration the countless ways that books have woven their way into the heart of our culture. When technological newcomers - like vinyl records, tapes, CDs - were forced to give way to succeeding technologies, it was usually because the new technology was able to recreate the exact same experience as the one it replaced (well, maybe not entirely. Some - including my son - claim they can still hear the difference in vinyl records). But not all technological change swallows its forbears. The death of radio was predicted many times, but it is still a lively medium because it fills a role that other technologies, like television, haven't able to fill. That same viability is true of books. A sober look at the history of books shows that they have a myriad of roles in our culture that would be very difficult to replicate.

It's time to downplay the similarity between books and records and find some better comparisons.

What if a book is more like a movie?

The death of movies has been routinely predicted with the advent of television, VCRs, DVDs, streaming videos and the like. But there's a good reason for their survival. Watching a film in a movie theater is physically different that watching it on your own video screen. The screen is larger, the sound more enveloping, and the experience more engaging. The same is true of books. E-books and printed books may both deliver the same words, but beyond that the two experiences diverge. This is most obvious in large art, travel, or photography books, where the visual aspect of the book predominates. It's true also in children's books with their flip-up illustrations, over-thick pages, and enticing shapes and sizes. People often love a particular book for reasons that transcend the collection of words it might contain.

But books are like movies in another sense as well. "Going to the movies" is a social tradition that allows you to immerse yourself in the people around you, creating a cultural experience that you share with others. The same is true of books. Here printed books make a sharp departure from their e-book cousins. Modern libraries and bookstores are abuzz with human interaction as staff members recommend books, people meet in book clubs, and customers compare notes. But the thing that truly sets a printed book apart from anything else is a modern-day author event. Having sat through hundreds of them, I can attest that there is nothing that really compares with the moment that writers meet their fans for the first time. And what is the medium of exchange? A printed book - one that is lovingly handed over, inscribed, and then carefully handed back.

What if a book is more like a Rembrandt etching?

Rembrandt's famed 1632 etching "The Raising of Lazarus" has a going price of about $60,000. But a first edition of Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species" sold for about $60,000 in London in 2009. You don't have to go that far to find some gallery-like prices on books. A signed first edition of John Grisham's 1989 novel "A Time to Kill" was selling two years ago for $1,500. Even a signed first edition of a more recent book like Khaled Hossein's 2003 novel "The Kite Runner" sells for just under $1,000. Great books - like great art - can go up dramatically in value. Does anyone want to guess what kind of a price you could get on the open market for a non-transferable, cloud-based e-book?

And like other proud possessions, books are something people display in homes. A bookcase full of your favorite volumes - highlighting your taste in literature, history, or art - tells a visitor more about you than a long letter of introduction. And there's a special power of discovery that books elicit when they are shelved side-by-side. If you're looking for a Shakespeare volume in a library or bookstore, you might find Sophocles or George Bernard Shaw shelved next to it and, thus, open up a whole new line of thought. Even in your personal library one book can lead to another. You might be reading Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts" and set it down on a shelf next to Max Hastings' "Winston's War." The juxtaposition of the two books might set you musing about life, war and evil. And that, in turn, might lead you a few inches further down the shelf to Adam Hochschild's "To End all Wars." Moments like these can launch you off on a serendipitous line of thought that you had no intention of pursuing in the first place. Of course, you can probably set out on that same voyage of discovery using an e-reader. But the difference is this: with physical books that discovery often comes to you.

If anyone doubts the cultural power of a shelf full of books, try this experiment. Close your eyes and imagine all the books in your home, or in all the homes you've visited, or even in the homes you seen in films. Now imagined they've all disappeared (having become either an "artifact" or a "nuisance" - you choose). In their place imagine blank walls with a video screen. How does that make you feel? I'll tell you how it makes me feel: I expect the cyborgs to walk in any minute with the manacles.

What if a book is more like a love letter?

The great British writer Malcolm Bradbury in a N.Y. Times essay called the giving and getting of books "The Courtship Dance." Bradbury says, "It was some time ago, when I was still a young student in college, that I learned that books make subtle and indeed erotic presents. ... Today I realize that I have to thank my female friend in college for a good deal more than a happy half-year and a fine copy of [D.H.] Lawrence." A book, Bradbury says, is more than a collection of words.

"The means of seduction is the book itself, that intricate object, with its great fan of pages far more complex in its messages than the most advanced word processor. Designers design it - the right cover, the right typeface, the right style. Then the booksellers take over. I am not sure what your bookstores in the States are like these days, but here in Europe they grow more exotic by the week. The lighting is low, coffee is served, evening readings and lunchtime signings tempt you to some literary assignation. You taste, you sniff, at last you buy."

But love letters come in many forms. A book doesn't need to have a flower pressed between its pages to be a billets doux. A note written by a grandmother and inscribed on the fly-leaf of a child's book will unleash a life-time of memories when that same book is picked up and looked at years later.

What if a book is more like ... well, we could go on.

Imagine a forbidden, unpopular book that you might have squirreled away somewhere. You could try doing that same thing with an e-book. But if it's important enough to keep that book a secret, remember that an e-book exists only in the cloud, one part of a relentless, compilation of data about the user. Good luck keeping that away from a snooper.

We'll give the last word to San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr. He was commenting in the S.F. Chronicle (1/24/12) about the upsurge in daylight robberies from people who sit on buses and benches, mindlessly reading their smart phones. The robber approaches, and within seconds the electronic device is gone. The solution? "If you're on the bus, read a book," Suhr said. "We do not have an upward trend of the theft of books."