Saturday, January 26, 2008

Books: not dead yet!

The New York Times can't get enough of quoting--and refuting--Steve Jobs on the Kindle and the death of the book. In case you've been under a rock and haven't seen the Jobs quotation, here it is:
"It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

The latest response is by Randall Strauss, a professor of business at San Jose State. After the inevitable "we do too read, so there!" statistics, he says something interesting:
The book world has always had an invisible asset that makes up for what it lacks in outsize revenue and profits: the passionate attachment that its authors, editors and most frequent customers have to books themselves. Indeed, in this respect, avid book readers resemble avid Mac users.

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell.

It seems to me that Strauss has two kinds of "books" in mind here: the physical, dead-tree object that people are as passionate about as Mac users are about Macs, and the "object we are accustomed to calling a book," which exists somewhere between cyberspace and the reader's eye. What this separation does is raise more questions than answers about Steve Jobs's comment:
  • A lot of us are passionate about books, the dead-tree physical object that makes us as obsessed as Mac owners. Is it this kind of readership/ownership that Jobs is talking about when he says that people don't read books any more?
  • Does the second kind, the book "stripped of its physical shell," count for anything? Does Steve Jobs mean that, say, an online version of Jane Eyre doesn't count as a book? For that matter, if I listen to it on my iPod, as I listen to a lot of books, it's still a book, isn't it?
  • And does reading necessarily mean reading a book? That's important for the Kindle with its downloading-on-the-fly capabilities, but is the Internet maybe also a book?
  • How are we defining a book, anyway? I'd be willing to bet that more people are voluntarily writing--if not reading--now than they used to 25 years ago, if only so they can weigh in on fanboy sites and opine about the latest troubles of Britney Spears. I don't say it's good writing, but it is writing, and I'm about the thousandth person to observe that more people have a voice and a larger audience for that voice than ever before because of blogs, fan sites, newsgroups, and the rest.

    For the record, I like my books served up dead-tree style, with a side order of interesting -looking covers and decent fonts, so that I can mark them up and find things. (No SEARCH function on a Kindle can be as fast as my blizzard of Post-It notes stuck to pages.) But I'm willing to recognize that that's an old-school, increasingly esoteric notion, as evidenced by the few students I've had who bring laptops with the texts online instead.

    Maybe what Steve Jobs is really saying is that a taste for reading books on paper is what's passé and that those of us who like them are going the way of eccentric button collectors in an age of zippers.

    Amanda said...

    I can't imagine not having books in the form they're in now. I love toting them around, turning each page as I read and being able to flip through the pages quickly. I love curling up on the couch with them and falling asleep. Mostly, I'm proud of the collection of books I've acquired throughout the years.

    It seems there are some things that the Kindle just won't replace for real book lovers :)

    undine said...

    That's what I love about them, too, Amanda. I like being able to find things quickly, too.