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In my opinion

Survival of the book

Let’s not eulogize the book just yet.


The next edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED) may not be printed, reports out of Britain said earlier this year. The Telegraph added that even Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, now believes that this latest bit of news on the famous dictionary was a “prescient” sign that the printed book was doomed to extinction. Prophets like Winchester argue that Kindles and iPads (and presumably the next fads in digital technology) will soon relegate the good old printed book “to the history books” (found only online, I’m sure).

But, hold on – let’s not eulogize the printed book just yet. There still may be some staying power in this ancient information technology. It has had, after all, a very successful run.

Introduced 2,000 years ago, the codex (which is the ancient Latin name for the book) revolutionized the ancient world. Within a few centuries of its birth, it superseded the scroll as the most convenient mode of writing, reading and pre-serving texts.  And the next revolution in writing only increased its appeal and availability: with the advent of the printing press in 15th-century Germany, the book market exploded because the printing press made the once tedious and prohibitively expensive mode of copying texts by hand far cheaper and more efficient. Since then, the book has had an unrivalled place in our civilization.

Until now, they say.

But I believe the printed book will survive. It possesses inimitable traits. Unlike most kinds of digital technology, it is eminently readable and easy on the eyes; books are often beautiful works of art. Books are remarkably durable – more so than digital versions (just ask any archivist).  And note that we still have the first printed books. The book has been wireless for 2,000 years. If you own one, you can mark it up, stick written notes in it, make comments in the margins, rip out pages. You can fetishize books, collect them, show them, give them away, trade them. They are wonderfully tactile and, despite the growing “virtual reality” of our lives, we are, from birth to death, tactile creatures.

Granted, the OED is a massive, multi-volume, and very expensive tome. The market for such a product is mostly limited to libraries, academics and book collectors. Even the compact edition, which I own, is huge and pricey. It is, after all, a dictionary, a reference book consulted for a few minutes at a time, for information about a specific word; it is not read like Moby Dick or The Aeneid. It is not so much a work of art or provocative argument as a massive repository of scholarship and information, and thus in electronic form the OED well suits the information age. It makes sense that the electronic version is much more popular than the print version. When you consult the OED, for instance while writing (a very normal time to consult it), you’re sitting at your computer, away from a reference library but connected to the Internet.

By prescient coincidence, the very day that I read the story in the Telegraph and heard about the coming demise of the printed book, I was in my office, connected to the Concordia University library, looking up a reference for a book. I was preparing for upcoming lectures on the ancient Israelites, the people of the Book, and I needed a book. But this book was available only in electronic form at my university library, and so too at neighbouring McGill University. Thus, I settled for the e-book. Only a few pages in, I gave up. Using my digital technology, I ordered a printed copy. The Romans were right: there is no substitute for the codex.

I am not a quixotic warrior against e-books, rashly shunning digital wonders and blithely ignoring the impressive facts about e-book sales. I am only defending the inimitable qualities of the printed book. I know that I am not a disinterested party: I love books. I teach at Concordia’s Liberal Arts College, a multidisciplinary “great works” program. We read, teach and love all sorts of printed books.

But we are not alone, and so long as people around the world appreciate the advantages the printed word offers, there will still be a market for books.  And like the lessons of ancient Rome or medieval Germany have shown, where there is a market, printed books will continue to be produced and purchased.

Jarrett Carty is an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University.

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  1. Ken Steele / June 14, 2011 at 18:13

    Like Jarrett I’m a bibliophile. My favourite course in the English Lit PhD program at UofT was Bibliography, and I’m still hoping to take up bookbinding as a hobby if I ever retire. The walls of my home are lined with books.

    However, I’m among the believers that eBooks will overtake paper books in the years ahead. Reference works like the OED, encyclopedia, telephone books, and university course calendars will be the first to go all-electronic. But the flexibility, affordability, and portability of eBooks means they will inevitably become the most popular format for course textbooks, newspapers, magazines, journals, and perhaps before long, novels as well.

    Only 1 in 5 current undergraduates says they would prefer eBooks for course textbooks at the moment. But more than half would like to have an iPad, and users of iPads are much more open to eBooks for textbooks. It’s just a matter of time.

    The linear, tactile, paper-based modes of thinking that we grew up with are evolving, and the kids born today — who will be in our undergraduate classrooms in 2028 or so — will likely be much more comfortable with electronic technology than we are. And I suspect the interfaces and file formats will have improved by then, too, so that we can annotate, preserve, and share eBooks like we do paper books now. All without cutting down a single tree, or climate controlling a storage facility.

    I would predict that somewhere between 2016 and 2028, most of us will be comfortably reading virtually everything from electronic pages.

  2. Lourdes Villamor, M.Ed. (c), Dip. Post-Secondary Ed. (c), York University / June 14, 2011 at 18:55

    Prof. Carty,

    I was thinking about the fate of the printed book today, a few hours before I read your article, and wrote some of my thoughts on a project website. As I was reading your words, I found myself nodding my head in agreement.

    I see the digitization of a dictionary as different from the digitization of a course textbook or a novel. I refer to a dictionary/translator on an as-needed basis, usually when I’m working on papers or am curious about something; I often want the answer right away, and when I receive the answer, I don’t usually check the reference again. However, with textbooks and novels, I constantly go through them, re-read them, highlight them, make notes on them. I’m not working with these texts on an as-needed basis most of the time; I’m working with these texts for an extended period of time, and I want to constantly have these texts on hand without having to charge, load, or plug in anything. Also, printed books ARE more aesthetically pleasing to me; they’re expressions of art that can be collected, housed, exhibited, and never lost due to a technological crash of some sort. Furthermore, reading digital words for a long period of time can be painful. So yes…I agree that books are easy on the eyes aesthetically as well as physiologically!

    As for the fate of the printed book, I am quite optimistic about its survival. Even if texts are more and more digitized, I am certain that there will be people in the world – especially those who do not have as much access to digital technologies as others – who will continue to pay homage to the printed text, not eulogize it.

    Great article!


    Lourdes Villamor

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