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Joy of the [Dead] Book

As I look at my stack of current to-be-finished books, I consider the recent proclamation of the death of the book, so called by some bloggers and news outlets. This isn’t really what was declared. But Seth Godin, marketing guru, announced that he would no longer publish (e-books included) the traditional way. He didn’t announce the death of reading. Though some might interpret it that way. Consider this exchange in the comments section from a blog post yesterday that elicited 2500 tweets.

Charity FootballClub: I’m SO OVER reading…it’s why i stick with twitter cos it’s quick , short and sharp. Linchpin the hard copy book is the last I bought and it’s taken a while but I’m getting to the end! as for eBooks! nah…click , close file …game over!

Then Thefriendraiser suggested that reading would help gain comprehension and critical thinking skills. To which this commenter suggested:

I disagree Thefriendraiser. I think Charity FootballClub should stop reading so he/she does not gain anymore comprehension and critical thinking skills. That way there will be one less person i have to compete with for a job!

Well said.

A story like this is a good example of how we apply our own spin, based on our fears or desires. Would-be slackers (above) see it as permission to not read, because they’re already looking for an excuse. Would-be writers fear there will be no use for the book buried inside them. The tech-obsessed feed like vultures on stories like this as proof of the e-medium’s superiority over all other mediums.

Here are two good pieces on the publishing industry. This New Yorker piece “Publish or Perish: Can the iPad topple the Kindle, and save the book business?”, despite being about the battle between e-readers, nonetheless does a good job of explaining the traditional book publishing business and its impact on authors. This NY Times article on self-publishing offers some statistics on the trend.

There are three parts to this dialog: reading, books and publishing. They are independent of each other in a sense. Reading (of the deep and focused kind) is under threat from all sorts of distractions. Books (actual books of the dog-eared, margin-scrawled kind) are under threat, if you can call it that, from the electronic variety. I say “if you can call it that” because an author’s work is still being read, a book purchased. (The delicious visual pleasure of good book design might slowly disappear. But find hope in AIGA’s 50 Books 50 Covers for award-winning book design. Alive and kicking.) And well, it appears that the world is calling on traditional book publishing to change, and maybe that’s a good thing, from a democracy standpoint.

Ventures like Good Bookery, that I’m involved in, along with co-creators of the collaborative book Portland Bottom Line on small business sustainable practices, offer the potential for a much more rich, multi-faceted experience than traditional publishing—the social book, as Peter Korchnak calls it. Our Portland Story is another example that takes the tangible artifact that is book and puts a new spin on it. Collaborations are not new, but creative people, who happen to love books, are figuring out ways to make books…differently.

What I really came here for, though, was to praise books.

I will always want to smell and touch a book, to scribble notes in the margin, to dog ear pages that hold special meaning. Loaning and borrowing books are acts of love and connection. When I have to wait for weeks or months for a book from the library, I can’t help feeling connected to the hundreds of people who wanted or needed that book as much as I did. I have a hard time imagining a world where we won’t gather with strangers in a store like Powell’s Books saying “excuse me, pardon me” as we squeeze past each other in the aisles. A book satisfies like a long, deep conversation or a several-hour meal. In a book, you can fall in love, fight a war, solve a crime, cross a sea. Yes, you can do all those things online, but not in the same way. Why? Because staring at black words on a white page is like staring at a blank canvas. You can spill your mental pictures onto it, heightening the experience.

I’ll leave you with this:

The Death of Reading

By Jeffery Deaver

I’ve got what I think is the very best job.
I have no commute; I can dress like a slob.
I get paid to make up things–isn’t that neat?
Just like at the White House and 10 Downing Street.

Only in my case there’s no dereliction.
In fact, lying’s expected when you’re writing fiction.
So imagine my horror, imagine my fear
When I read in the press that the end was near.

But not Armageddon or crazed terrorists.
No, the death of reading was the article’s gist.
Teachers and parents and critics all share it:
That like Monty Python’s proverbial parrot

Reading is dead, deceased, pushing up daisies.
People are growing increasingly lazy,
lured by the siren of electronic toys
That fill up their lives with meaningless noise.

PlayStations, Facebook, big-screen TVs
And mobile phones smarter than I’ll ever be.
We pray at the altar of our brand-new God,
Who’s powerful and wise and whose name is iPod.

Now, if people are no longer going to read,
Then writers are something that nobody needs.
This made my heart tremble and made my hands shake
And I considered what other jobs I might take.

But looking for work to find something new,
I decided that I all I could possibly do
Involved making lattes and learning to say,
“Let me tell you about our specials today.”

But before heading off to my overpriced shrink,
I decided it might be best to rethink
these terrible rumors that we’ve all heard
About the demise of the written word.

Now, if truly readers are dying off fast,
That suggests there were masses of them in the past,
But I can hardly imagine when that might have been.
Who had, after all, any time to read when

You were fighting off lions with your bare hands
And wandering nomadic across desert sands.
True, reading wasn’t past everyone’s reach,
But stone tablets weren’t popular reads at the beach.

In ancient Rome, yes, people read more,
But not mass-market scrolls from their local drug store.
And Latin, oh, please . . . once your lessons were done
Your life span was over, and your neighbors were Huns.

In medieval times, there was always the hope
That you might learn to read—if you worked for the Pope,
Or you were a royal or other elite,
Which left most of Europe up illiterate creek

Then Gutenberg invented movable letters,
Making access to books a little bit better.
Though another small problem existed, of course,
That the smallest of books cost more than your horse.

Victoria’s queen; tuppence novels arrive.
And everywhere interest in reading thrives.
But despite what the doomsayers might be wishing,
The data show Dickens sold far less than Grisham.

Well, if the past hardly proves what the critics say,
Then how ’bout the state of reading today?
To find out if no one reads anymore
I went to–where else?—my local book store,

Which I couldn’t help notice was jammed to the gills,
And virtually every shelf was filled
With books on more subjects than I knew existed
And dozens of posters on which were listed

Upcoming visits by writers galore,
Who’d read to their fans right there in the store:
Lit’rature, poems, true crimes about killers
And self-help and travel, and—oh, yeah—thrillers.

And if crowded stores turn you into a grouch,
You don’t even need to get off your couch.
Click on Amazon’s site and browse online
For ten million titles, all day long, any time.

A few years ago when I was downtown,
Doing some shopping, just strolling around
I nearly died in a massive stampede
Of children, no less, in desperate need

To purchase their latest heart’s desire,
No batteries required, no software, no wires,
A book’s what they sought and they’d waiting all day.
Who’s this Harry Potter guy, anyway?

We love reading so much that the books we now see
Are changing from what they used to be.
Originally written in clay and on leaves,
Books are now “printed” on digital screens.

Why, I got on an airplane the other day
And I heard this announcement on the PA:
“Welcome aboard, we’ll soon be underway.
Please put telephones, e-books and Kindles away.”

So forgive me, the ghosts of Lake Windermere,
And all other poets that we hold so dear,
Not to mention the late and the great Dr. Suess,
For my rhyming transgressions and rhythmic abuse,

But I simply couldn’t sit back and ignore
This lie that nobody reads anymore.
And I’ll share some more proof that there’s nothing to fear:
Why, just look around at our gathering here.

We’ve traveled for thousands and thousands of miles
from the Mideast, from Europe, the Pacific Rim isles.
We’ve managed to get here, whatever it took.
For something immortal . . . our passion for books.

© 2006 Jeffery W. Deaver

(In the spirit of celebrating authors, if you copy this poem, please include the copyright and link to his website.)

What one book has left the biggest impression on you? Why?

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