On Slate, Jack Shafer looks at the declining status of books in the modern media environment. While we on TeleRead might see printed books as declining in favor of the e-book, Shafer makes a decent argument that the importance of books in general, as status symbols or repositories of knowledge, is also decreasing.
It used to be, Shafer writes, that:
If a curious individual wanted to learn more about Subject A or Subject B, an encyclopedia, a library, or a book store were the best places to acquire that knowledge. But today, if I decide I want to know more about, say, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, do I really need to track down a copy of Neal Gabler’s excellent Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity? Or can I sate my hunger with theWikipedia entry, a quick Google search of his name, by using Amazon’s “click to look inside!” feature, or searching Google Books to glean enough information? My guess is that in most cases, readers can. They don’t need to buy the entire menu when they can shop a la carte.
It is also no longer necessary to “hoard” books, as Shafer did in the past, out of fear that if he sold one he wouldn’t be able to find it again easily. Thanks to Internet-connected used book vendors, almost any book can be found more easily than ever at need. And, of course, e-books can be obtained without even having to leave one’s home.
In fact, many of the advantages that books still have—the sense of accomplishment in finishing one, the greater sense of authority they possess than more short-term media such as newspapers or magazines—apply equally to printed books and e-books, meaning that the primacy of the printed book is reduced a little further.
In a way, this is just another one of those “death of” pieces that have been popping up all over the media lately. Though unlike most of them, this one at least seems to keep the hand-wringing to a minimum—talking about what is happening, rather than whether it’s a good or bad thing.
Even if its format is changing, I’m pretty sure that one way or another, the book is going to be with us for a long, long time.