Opinion

Amazon e-book tipping point: Is the death of books upon us?

On the strength of the popular Kindle, Amazon says it now sells more e-books than hardcovers. What's being lost is the messy tactile narrative of how books are made manifest and cling to our lives, as "The Hobbit" did to mine.

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Imagine going to the library and ending up in a museum with free wireless, and you get the picture of where the reading public is headed. Books, the kind with spines and glue, are heading for the rare manuscript collection.

Amazon’s announcement last week that over the past three months they have sold more e-books than hardcover books (a market they’ve covered for nearly 15 years) is a testament to the voracity of their Kindle-reader audience and evidence that we may be nearing a tipping point for digital reading.

The age of books is ending. Children born today will experience not the extinction of the book, per se, but the slow decline of the universal yet wonderfully idiosyncratic process of giving and receiving actual books, holding and shifting them in the lap, turning pages, and moving the eye and the mind across ink and shadow.

This communal human activity has spanned over five centuries, beginning with the invention of the Gutenberg Press and coming to rest not long after wireless technologies and e-readers started thumping their chests.

My lament for a life without books stems not from mere affection for how books are made and handled, but from an appreciation for the messy tactile narrative of how books are made manifest and cling to our lives. Our treasured books hold more than dog-ears and bookmarks; they store the fragments we shore against our ruins, to paraphrase the poet T.S. Eliot.

Back in the heyday of the early 1980s, at the close of my 8th-grade year, I put down my Rubik’s Cube long enough to read my dismal report card. I had earned a D+ in English, a gift from the gods, really, as I hadn’t done any of the work.

A few days after the school bus stopped coming, my mother stole into my brother’s room, retrieved J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and quietly left the well-worn volume on my bedside table. In the margin of the title page was my older brother’s name and this brief but powerful recommendation, “Great Book. Loved it.” I was hooked from the first line: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Thus began the literary adventure of my adolescence.

I’d like to say that reading the Tolkien sagas that summer turned me into a reader, and becoming an avid reader changed my life. The truth is probably a lot less dramatic and much more complicated.

All I know is that when Gandalf tapped his staff on Bilbo’s perfectly round, green door and invited him to undertake an adventure, that knock came on my door as well. Maybe I was just ready for the adventure.

Perhaps I would have become engaged in my own life’s journey if my mother had placed on my bedside table another book. Or a Kindle reader. Or an iPad. Some answers lie beyond even a wizard’s comprehension.

I still have the Tolkien trilogy from my youth, their crinkled red, green, and blue editions lodged among a row of other books with grand titles, stories from Homer to Carver, and notes from loved ones or friends tucked in the pages, the tangible artifacts of a reader’s life.

There is the book of essays by Lance Morrow, that erudite newspaper writer, given to me by my grandmother. At the close of an essay about the telephone, my grandmother observed in an elegant script: “An amazing invention – It still stumps me.”

There is a book by Tim O’Brien called “The Things They Carried.” Inside is a hand-written letter from my cousin Tex, forever 19 years old, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, his last recorded words on fading stationary, slipped into the spine of the book: “War is Hell. It’s hard to explain to people living back in the States what living and fighting in Nam is like. It’s no John Wayne rushing bunkers and throwing hand-grenades. No, it’s watching the low bird make tight circles looking for gooks to kill.”

A week later, his helicopter and crew were shot down and killed.

I wonder what kinds of messages I will write to my children and my children’s children as far as books and “gooks” are concerned. My wife is Asian. Will I have to tweet my messages, email them, or leave them on Facebook’s wall, where they will dangle momentarily on the screen before getting lost in the infinite scroll?

In my library there are books with scores of marginal notes, the disembodied but permanent markings of prior readers. It’s emotionally stirring to encounter notes from strangers, old friends and girlfriends, some now married, others divorced – conversations dead and gone. Like my old self.

Have you ever come across a marginal note you wrote 10 or 20 years ago and scratched your head: What was I thinking?

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Dylan Thomas, nearly 60 years ago, railing about the imminent death of his father. “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” I like words that don’t disappear. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it. A blog still sounds like a clog in my kitchen sink.

Mark Franek is the academic dean at the Rock School for Dance Education, in Philadelphia, and has taught English for nearly 20 years.

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Related:

Kindle e-reader: A Trojan horse for free thought

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