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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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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.

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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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