How to ensure books have a future

Do books have a future? This question has been asked again and again and again. The answer is always the same: Of course. How could anyone doubt otherwise? For proof, just look around you the next time you’re on a train, bus, or subway. You’ll see dozens of your fellow passengers, reading and reading and reading. How would we survive business trips and weekday commutes if we didn’t have books? (Books are particularly effective during subway delays. If nothing else, you can throw them at the wall in frustration when the conductor announces there’s a sick passenger.)

When people talk about a book, they’re speaking mainly of the kind that’s printed, bound, and, eventually, dog-eared. Will the book survive in a different form? Perhaps. But there’s is only one way to ensure that books survive at all: by encouraging people to read.

In the early 1990s, multiculturalism was the hot topic in academia and the press: Should all those white European guys make room for women and people of color in the canon? Amidst this debate, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt pointed out the real problem: It wasn’t what people were reading, but rather, the fact that reading, for pleasure and personal enrichment, was devalued. This has changed with the Harry Potter franchise and the Lord of the Rings movies. I remember Borders the day Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows was due for release. Not since the days of the Grateful Dead, when Deadheads descended on Madison Square Garden in their tie-dyes and flowery skirts, had I seen anyone so zealous as the Potter fan base in the bookstore that night. (Besides, Harry Potter’s better looking than Jerry Garcia.)

The Guild, of course, has an active literacy program. More recently, Steve Bedney has launched a new campaign to help New Orleans rebuild its public libraries. (See here for more details.) There’s a larger issue: changing people’s attitudes toward reading. Book-based franchises can make reading exciting and cool and wonderful–even sexy. (“A whole world full of hot guys like Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom? Squeeeeeeee!“)

But how do you move beyond that to interest readers and future readers in other genres and other subjects? How to motivate people to read when there’s no new movie adaptation in the works? That’s another, larger challenge.  And one, I expect, that holds the real key to the future of books–in whatever form they take.


9 responses to “How to ensure books have a future

  1. I don’t know about this article, but I’d like to start a discussion about the Book Show on March 11, 2008!

  2. Okay, here is a test.

  3. What article, John? And how can it be 3:59 pm on February 6th if today is Feb 6th and it is only 11:11 am??? –(ps–this is a test)….

  4. And now I am at 4:12 pm instead of 11:12 am so the ‘blog’ clock is exactly 5 plus 12 hours off — on the late side…very interesting, for sure…

  5. Since when do I need moderation, moi?

  6. Speaking of time – what time does the Book Show on March 11 start and when does it end?

    Are we having a piano player this year?

    Were you able to get the hotel to agree on us having a projector from a laptop of the images of this year’s winners?

  7. Richard Hollick

    I sat next to someone on the subway a couple of weeks ago who was reading a Kindle. I tried discretely to see what it was she was reading, but couldn’t ‘cos all there was as ID was the running head (no cover you could sneek a look at while pretending to tie your shoelace). It wasn’t what you’d call continuous reading though: she kept switching to checking her cell phone, and adjusting her i-Pod. I wonder if that’s what electronic books invite: reduced attention span.

    Having said that I do want to get a Kindle, or perhaps son of Kindle (when’s Apple going to do the iBook for real?) but unfortunately I’ve got an apartment full of hard copies which I want to get through first.

  8. As I am writing this reply on my iPod Touch at a conference in Albuqurque, I share what I think is Richard’s affinity for the ease and portability of the digital format. That said, until all text is hyperlinked and searchable I doubt that an electronic book length work gives us any more value that the old fashioned kind. Do we really need to carry around a library when wi-fi will give you Google?

  9. Let’s define publishing in terms of ideas and audiences, not delivery systems. When you look at it that way, it’s not one business at all, it’s at least two.
    There’s Entertainment (a core business for New York publishers), where you find Harry Potter and Henry Miller. Books are one channel in this business, but there are other channels, such as movies, games, and television.
    And then there’s Information (a core business for Boston publishers), where you find textbooks, academic journals, reference books, and the like, and where content is increasingly available for download (free or otherwise).
    Book publishing will continue to thrive if we can learn to put the content before the container. After half a millennium of earning almost all our revenue from selling the container, that won’t be an easy shift to make.

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