Are they in decline? 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.


  1. You note: “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.”

    Alas, we now have the same problem with ebooks. Buy one in a particular format with a certain DRM, and intended for a specific hardware platform and you can’t be sure you’ll have it in any real sense five years from now. And that’s not taking into account that throwing away a physical book requires conscious thought. Tossing out an old hard drive comes with no obvious warning that we may be tossing out our only copy of books and documents.

    I’d love to replace the books that fill the floor to ceiling shelves on an entire wall of my apartment with a single, fit in a coat pocket Kindle. But we’re not really there yet. Those who’re selling ebooks need to come up a way to ensure that when we buy an ebook we’re really buying it and not just renting a temporary copy.

  2. No link to the original article ?

    I don’t believe status is something the vast majority of people ever attributed to books for a start. Wikipedia and the web only became relevant and really useful for reference books. So I don’t follow the argument being made very well. Perhaps encyclopaedias status did take a dive ? … perhaps this is what irked Shafer… ?

    People need to realise that for the vast majority of ordinary every readers, eBooks have not even entered their reality. Even though we may be getting excited and hot under the collar about them, it is a tiny niche as yet.

  3. Unfortunately it is still necessary to ‘hoard’ books. The vast majority of books published between, say 1920 and 1970 remain in copyright but out of print, and although references to these and frustrating snippets can be found in Google Books — indicating that they have been scanned — they are still not available electronically. Only major changes to the copyright situation and the freeing-up of orphaned works will fix this. Or the ‘riffle scanner’ discussed a few days ago — whichever becomes available first.

    I would love to pass on my 400-odd classic paperback editions and replace them with good electronic copies: but I can’t do it yet.

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