Tor.com’s Ryan Britt has an interesting piece comparing depictions of the future of literature from various science fiction settings—Asimov’s Foundation series, several generations of Star Trek, Doctor Who’s “Silence in the Library” (which I discussed here), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the new Battlestar Galactica, and others. In most of these settings, for all that some form of e-books can readily be found, printed books still have their place as well.
So if we ignore all the big dystopias, then according to science fiction, it seems the future of books is looking pretty good. But there may be some real world, modern day science that explains this rosy outlook. In John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail, he quotes from another book called The Future of the Past, by Andrew Stille. Stille describes the interesting phenomenon of modern archival methods having extremely limited shelf lives. Essentially, papers from the Renaissance or Revolutionary War may be seriously faded, but we can still read them. Conversely, the estimated life of a digital storage tape or a hard drive is probably around ten years. Naturally, if cyberspace continues to function, we could keep all of our books stored there forever. But there will always need to be some physical, real world place that the information exists. And if all of those devices fail, and we do fall into some sort of dystopia, then books will still be the most effective way of preserving information.
I’ve long been considering writing a little science-fiction story myself, in which a far-future computerized society facing the collapse of its information technology discovers an amazing new paper-based form of information storage, just to turn the whole “we-don’t-want-to-adopt-something-new” philosophy of e-book disdainers on its ear. Maybe I should get around to it.