I have always loved reading. But it is a love that has been constantly frustrated. As a young teenager, I would spend days in the library, but I quickly exhausted my interests. If you wanted to know about Einstein, you were lucky to find one biography. If you wanted to teach yourself calculus, you might find one boring reference, if that.
When I attended junior college (we call it cegep here), one of my teachers encouraged me to read Feynman’s lectures. (They are now freely available online.) Though they were available at the library, I could not borrow them for the summer. So I tried to purchase them. There was no Amazon, no world wide web at the time. I went to a local bookstore and I asked the owner to order them for me. I said I was willing to pay upfront for the books. She refused to order them. Too much trouble to take in special requests. I think that, many years later, I did buy them in Toronto in a large bookstore, but it was just to show that I could. It felt like an empty victory.
As someone who spends almost all of his free time reading, you would think that I would be at ease in a bookstore. And while I have spent a lot of time in bookstores, they never satisfied me, even when I acquired the means to buy whatever books I wanted.
Libraries are more interesting. I could have been a librarian. The problem with libraries is that they are finite. There is always only so much room. I read about 25 science-fiction novel a year and about as many non-fiction books… all of them chosen with care… and none of them likely to be stocked in any given library. Here is what I read lately: Echopraxia by Watts (follow-up to Blindsight), Make It Stick by Brown and Finite and Infinite Games by Carse. None of these books are likely to be at my local library. And if they are available, I am likely to have to wait days or weeks to get them. In contrast, I bought them online in seconds.
Back in 2010, I got rid of most of my paper books. Though I have, on occasion, bought paper books, I do not think I have set foot in a bookstore ever since. I have also cancelled by newspaper subscription in 2012.
It may sound like an empty gesture, especially in 2014, but I still have colleagues commenting on the fact that my office is almost empty. Last week, one of my PhD students came in my office for a chat carrying more paper books than I ever had in my current office.
To say that I am still ahead of the curve is an understatement. In Quebec, most local publishers have shied away from ebooks. Though you can get the latest novels as ebooks, they are priced like paper books, making their purchase unreasonable.
Similarly, academia is still very much grounded in paper books. In many departments, you cannot get tenure without a (paper!) book by your name. A genuine book that lies flat in the bookstore for at least 3 months before being returned to the publisher. The fact that nobody would willingly buy your book is irrelevant. Paper has magic.
Do not get me wrong: I love paper. If you have ever seen me in person, you probably know that I always carry a paper notebook. I have always carried paper with me ever since I was a teenager—except for a few years when I believed that PDAs (the ancestor of modern-day smart phones) could replace notebooks. I am sure paper will be obsolete in 10 or 20 years, but we are not there yet. My sons still use paper books. We bring them to the library every three weeks or so. At school, they only use paper books. At home, for their studies, I buy them paper books.
I am a nerd. I like the feel of books. But I embrace ebooks because I cannot stand the thought of being limited by whatever I can carry physically with me, or by whatever space there is on the shelves. I also do not want to be limited by what gatekeepers believe I should be reading.
When you start doing something new, you can usually tell that others are joining in. I know others are embracing ebooks because I see people reading them on the bus every week. But it is harder to tell whether others have stopped doing something… like going to bookstores. Thankfully, Stephen Downes’ recent account of his visit to a bookstore conforts me in my belief that the days of paper books are numbered:
It occurred to me that you would never come to the bookstore to learn anything. The stuff that’s there is mostly superficial and survey literature.
It should not be surprising that the computer book section has been absolutely devastated. Again, you would not go to this section to learn anything – at best, the books could be considered references. Today, if you’re studying computer science – programming, design, concepts – you’re studying online. This section reflects that, and there was nothing for me to even browse.
Downes sums up my frustration with bookstores. They are not, and might never have been, for the intellectually curious folks. They are all about the mass production of cookie-cutter content.
Without profitable bookstores, I do not think that government libraries will last very long. Once people have formed the habit of using ebooks, or whatever superior alternatives are coming down the line… they will stop coming to the libraries. Libraries will be killed by the likes of Amazon just like Netflix killed Blockbuster.
Like any major change, this will not be painless. Already, the disappearance of bookstores means that many lose otherwise fine jobs. I will be the first to admit that ebooks are not quite as good as paper books for learning. But this only means that there are great business opportunities ahead. Ebooks could be so much more than zipped HTML files.
There will always be a market for paper books, the same way there will always be a market for vinyl records. But that is all.