10/08/2012 02:08 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Books: The Ultimate Vanishing Species

Flickr: University of the Fraser Valley

It used to be that a standard feature of the home of the upwardly intellectually mobile was a shelf of books -- a display of erudition to all visitors, a signal that this was a family that prized knowledge and ideas.

Alas, books and the bookshelves groaning under their weight are going the way of the landline.

Bookshelves have given way to widescreens, for a few vital reasons.

First, people aren't reading or buying physical books as they once did.

Second, college learning happens more and more on devices, with online coursepaks replacing the ritual (and expensive) trip to the college bookstore.

Third, people are taking longer to settle down after college, moving around more, spreading their wings, renting instead of owning, practicing serial monogamy instead of early marriage.

Each of these trends augur poorly for the wall full of books. It's just too hard to keep schlepping them in and out of boxes -- heavy boxes -- every time you move.

But the most important reason for not owning physical books is a phenomenon called "Dematerialization." I first came across the topic in a chapter in Peter Diamandis' spellbinding book, Abundance.

Diamandis writes that the existence of the multitasking smartphone obviates the need for a wide variety of devices that everybody used to buy repeatedly over the course of an adult lifetime. You don't need a watch if you have a phone. You don't need a camera. Or a video camera. Or a game console. Or a TV. Or an answering machine. Or a dictionary. Or a thesaurus. Or a calculator. And on and on, until backward reels the mind.

And you don't need books.

It's a net gain to have one small, amazing device that can perform all the functions of the devices listed above, and a means of saving considerable cash by not needing to buy each of the items it replaces.

But it's a net loss when the subject is books. Why? Because you want to have a camera or an answering machine on tap all the time. But do you really need a book?

And with all the things that a smartphone can do with a click of a button or a swipe of your fingers, reading a book, online or physical, suddenly feels like work.

And nobody likes to work.

All the time devoted to social networking, to updating one's Facebook page, to following and being followed on Twitter, to posting to Pinterest, and so on, has to come from somewhere. Are people sleeping less so they can download more? Doubtful. They're almost certainly watching less over-the-air TV, despite the proliferation of options. They're talking less on the phone, but that's because phone calls take longer than email or texting. You have to spend all that time finding out how the other person is. Too tiresome these days.

So the likelihood is that we're spending less time reading books. We might be buying them as ebooks, with the noble intention of reading them. We might be stocking our phone with the classics from Project Gutenberg, but books are turning into vegetables: purchased more often than they're consumed.

As the economists say, things that can't go on, stop. If we don't read books, we don't need books. So we stop buying them. One newly former reader at a time.

It's sad, because one of the easiest and most pleasant ways to shorthand your intellectual and casual interests, your political beliefs, and your philosophical perspectives on life is to allow your guests a quick scan of your bookshelves as they make themselves comfortable visiting your home. As books go away, we lose this once-essential form of social bonding. We know each other less. Or we know each other instead through the trivia of social networking.

It's amazing to think that after all the books people have written about endangered and vanishing species, the book itself would become the most endangered species of all. They are de-materializing, as if in a Vegas magic trick.

Now you see them; now you don't.


New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank contestant Michael Levin runs and is a nationally acclaimed thought leader in the area of the future of book publishing.