I grew up twenty-six miles outside of Seattle. I come from the land of Mariner’s baseball, Microsoft, Ivar’s Seafood, Nordstrom and yes, the 146-year-old Seattle Post Intelligencer. Tomorrow, the PI will distribute it’s final print copy to some 117,600 subscribers. The first newspaper of its size to make this transition, the PI will become an entirely digital news”paper” from here on forward.
Many tears have been shed.
So what’s the big deal? Doesn’t the transition from a traditional paper newspaper to a digital newspaper mean thousands of saved trees every year? Doesn’t this move make news reported by PI staffers available to more people in more places than every before? Isn’t this the tide of the future?
Well, if you read this article, you’ll realize some of the problems associated with such a magnanimous change. Dozens of people (hundreds?) are losing their jobs as a result of this transition. Some, like the paper’s copy editors, wonder at the quality of the writing and reporting that will appear on the even quicker turn around version of the on-line version of the paper. And what about people who (still) don’t have Internet access, or just plain-old prefer the experience of sitting down to their breakfast table, cafe table or public transit seat with an actual paper in hand? Is it fair to leave these people in the dust when it comes to accessing local, state, national and international news?
As more newspapers are facing this very same potential reality, I can’t help but to also draw a parallel between this drastic transition facing the newspaper industry and the book publishing industry.
Amazon’s Kindle has well over 100,000 units to market already. Products like the iphone aren’t terribly far behind in their ability to handle digital book reading applications. And how about the other six or so products that are just around the corner…nearing the market place and giving the Kindle a run for its money?
People who own a Kindle tend to echo the same notion over and over again; they love it. With its slim design and quick download capabilities, carrying around a “new book” at any or all times is as insignificant as a second thought. And the books are cheap. To download a book onto one’s Kindle costs about ten bucks–a far cry from the twenty-plus dollars you can plunk down for a new release hard back.
And proponents of the digital book era have dollar signs floating in front of their corneas when they think about how many more people are likely to purchase books when they are cheaper, lighter and, yes, paper conserving. (I’m sure Oregon’s spotted owls would agree.)
The above arguments, however, do not address the changes in royalties authors will receive. But that, my friends, is another topic entirely.
Still, there’s something about a bookshelf full of books that just plain old comforts me. To be surrounded by thousands–millions–of words-on-the-page, written over years and centuries by people from every corner of the globe…their is something so deeply rooted in humanity in that for me that is simply irreplaceable by a device like the Kindle. (Have you ever spent time perusing a friend’s, neighbor’s or colleague’s book shelf? You can learn of heck of a lot about a person based on what you see on their book shelf.)
My mother, an avid reader and book club participant, says she’ll never buy a Kindle. And it’s not like my parents are technologically in the dark. They have big screen TVs with complicated remote control systems, a laptop computer a piece, Bluetooth earpieces for their cell phones and wireless internet access in their home.
But my mom, she likes the feel of a book in her hands. She likes the texture and the smell of the pages. She likes the cover art and the process of visiting a book store to select and buy a new title. She refuses to even buy her books on-line.
For her, and for me too, reading is a communal thing. It is more than a hobby or a form of entertainment or self improvement (although it is all of those things too). It is a way to connect with people–the authors of the books, other readers of the same books, and with the deepest levels of the self where ideas and images presented in a book work their magic–that is as old as recorded history and is as universal as mathematics.
And what about the artistry of a book itself? Have you ever stopped to ponder the cover artwork? The type of paper used? The type of binding? The internal layout of a book (fonts used, page layouts, contents pages, embellishments)? Somehow, I doubt a Kindle can approximate the artistic quality that defined older books and occasionally is incorporated into the printing of present-day literature.
So, I have to ask, do we really want to see this happen? Do we really want to see our newspapers and books disappear in lieu of faster, fancier online versions? Are the trees we will save, the processes streamlined, and the timelines halved, worth the sacrifices such transitions come with?
I’m still unsure of the answers to the questions posed above but, I have to tell you, I sure as hell am pondering those questions deeply in this day and age. Are you?