Will the book survive?

Jeff Bezos envisions a Kindle-only world, but ink-on-paper books still have a place, including helping to build better cities.
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Will the Kindle be the death of books?

Jeff Bezos envisions a Kindle-only world, but ink-on-paper books still have a place, including helping to build better cities.

Reading the Newsweek interview with Jeff Bezos last week, I was struck by his belief that the Kindle or devices like it will eventually replace the printed book entirely. E-books are now outselling regular books on Amazon, and Bezos says that the book has had a good run, "But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever." Asked if he still reads books on paper, Bezos replied, "Not if I can help it."

In many ways, Kindle and products like it are a boon for readers, and I don't object to them. In fact, I was pleased to learn that my book Pugetopolis was Kindled last year because, as an author, I was happy to have it be available in any format. Avid readers want material in whatever form, and in fact various outlets seem to feed each other.

In the process of determining "America's most literate cities," a study in which Seattle comes in near the top of the list every year, researchers have found that "cities ranked highly for having better-used libraries also have more booksellers; cities with more booksellers also have a higher proportion of people buying books online; and cities with newspapers with high per-capita circulation rates also have a high proportion of people reading newspapers online." Inquiring minds tend to use whatever means they can to get what they want. I buy books from independents and chains, Amazon, and Powell's, read print and online, borrow from libraries and friends (at their peril).

The institutions that rely on books are having to adapt. From the Rem Koolhaas temple in downtown Seattle to the far-flung new libraries in places like Issaquah that feel like warehouses sheltering the latest ephemeral dot com, libraries are less about books than being ports for information-seekers (and in the Koolhaas case, a tourist attraction and architectural wonder that reminds me of the new airport terminal expansion at Sea-Tac).

The search for knowledge and entertainment doesn't mean that the Elliott Bays won't have their struggles, or that newspapers won't fold or feel the pinch of changed business models. But to me, the idea that the book itself will go away entirely is absurd, and hardly something to wish for. For one thing, even if every publisher abandoned ink-on-paper tomorrow, the antiquarian trade would continue. A thousand years from now books will still be exchanged and treated with the rarity of Babylonian cuneiform cones.

History shows us that many "dated" technologies are, in fact, durable. Look at Seattle. Our 21st century progressive urban policies focus on building trolley and streetcar lines, promoting bikes and walking, and buying food from local farmers. We have cops on horses still, and are looking for ways to re-establish the old Mosquito fleet of passenger ferries.

Printed books might become more specialized, they might change, but there is something in their durable simplicity. For one thing, there is the issue of permanence. We have been progressing toward ever-more ephemeral technologies. The book moved from clay tablets to sheepskin to wood-pulp paper to electrons. A book is more likely to last a thousand years than an e-book and the Kindle to read it on. I once asked a senior archivist at the Library of Congress what the best medium was for storing information long term. His reply: "terra cotta."

It is likely that the audience for general books will eventually shrink, at least if the new reading habits of younger people prevail. Slate founder Michael Kinsley tells the story of being at a "fate of the newspaper" conference and being told by a mature audience member that she lamented the plight of daily newspapers and that she preferred to have a paper that she could hold in her two hands. A fellow panel member blurted that that problem would eventually "be solved actuarially." Meaning, print paper readers will eventually die off.

Nevertheless, the portability of books, the fact that they can be made by hand, that they're compact, that they don't have to be plugged in to a power source, and that they carry enormous psychological and cultural weight, stand in their favor. I've been surprised that my own book, for some people, veils the author with an authority that the columns collected in it did not. "Author" is a title still some conferred with respect, deserved or not. Part of the elegance of books is that they make physical what is not physical: ideas and imagination. Sometimes they carry more weight than they should, but I don't think the status of books will wear off soon, nor their power.

While Jeff Bezos might dream of a world in which he will never have to touch the printed page again, to me that world would be empty. I grew up surrounded by books, and have buried and lined my own homes in them as well. In my early teens, I began stalking the deep stacks at the late, lamented Shorey's downtown, where Mr. Todd, a nephew of the founder Sam Shorey, believed that every book had an owner, and his job was to connect the two, whether it was a $1,000 first edition or a $2 pamphlet. Bookshops of the old school were laden with personalities, the stores were the expressions of "bookmen," a noble title taken by those who loved books and what they contained.

My own tastes in bookshops were shaped by the eccentricities of places like Shorey's, Fillipi's, Beatty's and Taylor Bowie's. You could wander downtown Seattle for hours and touch on these and other islands of sanity, each with their quirks. Fillipi's had records, movie stills, and old pulp magazines along with books, and it seemed to offer antique mystery, as evidenced by the model airship that hung in the front window. Beatty's had a table with rejected review copies from the daily newspapers, so you could often find bound galleys or first editions with their press releases still in them. Shorey's had floors of books stacked randomly like the warehouse in Citizen Kane: even the staff had no idea what was up there. In Bowie's shops, there was always a strong adherence to quality: His stores were the anti-Shorey's, honed by a fine mind and featuring a stock that was smart and selective.

Bookshops that feature strong personalities (and they still exist, especially among used-books dealers) are a bit like blogs in three dimensions. The bookmen (or women) assert a set of opinions and priorities with their stock, they offer books, but also make statements. They are portals to the world of ideas and life of the mind, but they are no less a creative expression, the best of them make bookselling an art form.

In addition, good bookstores add a great deal to their communities, especially in cities and suburbs where they help, literally, to shape community identity, from book districts to malls. Think of the influence on creating livable neighborhoods that bookstores have had in places like Lake Forest Park or Crossroads in Bellevue. It is for that reason that a developer courted Elliott Bay Book Co.'s move from Pioneer Square, where it had so much influence, to Pike-Pine on Capitol Hill, where it is hoped it will boost the neighborhood as a desirable amenity. If nothing else, it's already paying its way already by boosting awareness of Pike-Pine development through all the publicity.

There are many books that are improved in their electronic versions: travel guides, text books, encyclopedias, anything requiring frequent updates. I subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary online because it is easier to use and takes less space than the OED's print versions, especially those with readable type. It opens more shelf space for other books. I hope the Kindle and other tablet readers can do that same.

Perhaps Bezos can live by e-reader alone, but the Kindle can't and won't replace all that books do. It's a new tool, but the old tools will continue to be useful too.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.