The Death of the Book


Ben Ehrenreich in the LA Review of Books:

PITY THE BOOK. IT'S DEAD AGAIN. Last I checked, Googling “death of the book” produced 11.8 million matches. The day before it was 11.6 milion. It's getting unseemly. Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality. Their pages grow brittle. Their ink fades. Their spines collapse. They are so pitiful, they might as well be human.

The emphasis shifts with each telling, but every writer, editor, publisher, bookseller, and half-attentive reader knows the fundamental story. After centuries of steady climbing, book sales leveled off towards the end of the 1900s. Basic literacy began to plummet. As if television and Reaganomics were not danger enough, some egghead lunatics went and built a web — a web! — out of nothing but electrons. It proved a sneaky and seductive monster. Straight to our offices and living rooms, the web delivered chicken recipes, weather forecasts, pornography, the cutest kitten videos the world had ever seen. But while we were distracted by these glittering gifts, the internet conspired to snare our friend the book, to smother it.

The alarm at first built gradually. In 1999, Robert Darnton, writing in The New York Review of Books, consoled his readers that, all the grim prophecies notwithstanding, “the electronic age did not drive the printed word into extinction.” The book seemed safe enough for a few years, in more danger from the avarice of the carbon-based conglomerates that ate up all the publishers, than from anything in silicon. Safe until the fall of 2007, when lady Amazon released her hounds. Within a month of the Kindle's debut, the New Yorker was writing of the “Twilight of the Books.” (Cue soundtrack: all minor keys, moody cello.) The London Times worried that “the slow death of the book may be with us.”

Last summer Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books than the paper kind. The time to fret had passed. It was Kindle vs. kindling. MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte — whose name is frequently preceded by the word “futurist” — declared that the demise of the paper book should be written in the present tense. “It's happening,” Negroponte said, and gave the pulpy artifacts just five years to utterly expire.