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.

11 Comments »

  1. > I will be the first to admit that ebooks are not quite as good as paper books for learning.

    Even though there is such a sentiment, it may be a bit subjective. Some people do like paper books and find them more convenient. Some don’t. In particular, I find very frustrating that it is impossible to context-search a paper book. With electronic articles and books I do it all the time.

    Another thing that is quite easy if you have a PDF: you make notes right in the PDF and upload it online. Then, it is available whenever you go (assuming there’s Internet there). Try this with paper books.

    Comment by Leonid Boytsov — 2/9/2014 @ 13:29

  2. I think you’re conflating two separate issues (the decline in bookstores and the decline in libraries). And neither of these point to the decline of the paper book.

    Neither bookstores nor libraries are dying because people are choosing ebooks over paper books. Bookstores are dying because online retailers (*cough* Amazon *cough*) are better at shipping books, ebook or paper. Rather than trying to compete directly, most major chains (like Indigo) are trying to diversify into the niche gift market as a way of propping up their sales.

    Libraries are dying for the same reason they are always dying: certain political elements do not care for the idea of a library, and a non-disjoint set of political elements view libraries as financially irresponsible drains on taxpayers. Libraries are almost always among the first line of public services subject to spending cuts. This has nothing to do with consumer selection of book formats. Moreover, libraries are not really about books. Libraries are community loci of learning. The books just happen to be tools that facilitate this learning. Libraries are doing a far better job than bookstores at diversifying their offerings, because they have more wiggle room: they can offer computer access, digital resources, and the expertise of librarians. Libraries will survive as long as there is a public will for them to be funded, regardless of whether they stock paper or not.

    It’s fun to assert that the rise of ebooks means the death of paper books, just like it’s fun to say that the novel is a dying art form. Saying it does not make it true. I agree that the scenario you lay out is possible, but we disagree on the likelihood. Your comparison of paper books to vinyl records is attractive but not particularly apt. The two forms of media are too dissimilar.

    Comment by Ben Babcock — 2/9/2014 @ 13:31

  3. Libraries will not disappear, they will transform. They will still be needed to index and store the digital books, they still will need curators, they still will be needed for archiving.

    That’s something Amazon (or any publisher) can’t and *won’t* do.

    Also on the topic of the medium vs message, I don’t really see how vinyl fit in the comparison (except for hipster/quaint factor). They are a medium inferior to digital audio. They wear out rapidly, they are easy to damage. Digital audio can be replicated and transcoded. Paper books have one thing in which they are still very much superior to digital media books is that they last. Your paper books will be “compatible” in 200 years. What about that epub/pdf/stupid-proprietary-format ebook in ten years? Books can’t be recalled. You can move them from one room to another. You can lend them to friends without having the DMCA suing you. You have control and duration. Ebooks? Unless Creative Commons, not so much.

    The ebooks _may_ come to a point where the media isn’t, as you said, merely HTML, and will offer usability and freedom on par with real books (yes, even if you can ctrl-f something faster on a ebook… sometimes.. they’re rarely better), but they have a long way to go.

    Books aren’t vinyls.

    They’re the CDs.

    Comment by Steven Pigeon — 2/9/2014 @ 13:38

  4. @Leonid

    What you describe is correct, and I hardly ever use anything but ebooks and PDFs for this reason. But it is harder to annotate ebooks than you make it sound.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/9/2014 @ 13:45

  5. @Daniel,
    it is a bit harder and annotation takes longer. However, if you add a note, it will be in print easy-to-read letters. In the case of handwriting, people can have trouble reading their own scribbles later (at least this is an issue for me).

    Comment by Leonid Boytsov — 2/9/2014 @ 13:49

  6. @Ben

    I do not think that what is happening to bookstores is new or caused by Amazon. In Quebec, at least until recently, Amazon had no market penetration at all. Yet our bookstores still fit Stephen Downes’ description. I remember that, 20 years ago, my local bookstores would often be without any scientific book whatsoever, except for survey material. I do not think this has changed because of Amazon.

    I agree that libraries are doing better than bookstores. However, once Amazon offer a comprehensive all-you-read system for $10 a month… the weak political will you describe will be hard to sustain. More to the point, why would anyone care about government libraries at that point? (Libraries in schools and colleges are another matter.)

    Libraries will survive as long as there is a public will for them to be funded, regardless of whether they stock paper or not.

    Something called a library can still exist without paper books. Whether it is recognizable as a library…

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/9/2014 @ 14:04

  7. @Steven

    Libraries will not disappear, they will transform. They will still be needed to index and store the digital books, they still will need curators, they still will be needed for archiving.

    Sure, but they will not exist as they were. They will be something else which critically does not revolve around paper.

    Books aren’t vinyls. They’re the CDs.

    It has been years since I have been in a store selling CDs. The last CD I bought was probably 10 years ago. I do not even have a CD player, unless you count my PlayStation 3 which could be used for this purpose, I suppose.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/9/2014 @ 14:10

  8. Despite everything, the prophesized decline in CD sales did not materialize entirely. People still buy them: they have the highest quality digital audio (not a poorly made 128kbits mp3), they have control over the contents. They can rip them, share them, transcode them, copy them. They pay extra to be able to do whatever they want with it.

    I get FLACs or CDs for this exact reason.

    (See http://musicbusinessresearch.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/the-recorded-music-market-in-the-us-2000-2013/ )

    Comment by Steven Pigeon — 2/9/2014 @ 14:32

  9. @Steven

    I am sure people still buy CDs and I take your point that books are maybe close to CDs. The same way people will still buy paper books they will keep on buying CDs.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/9/2014 @ 14:46

  10. While a parody, there are some salient points made by the parody Ikea catalog commercial at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOXQo7nURs0#t=58

    Comment by Mike Stiber — 4/9/2014 @ 15:10

  11. @Steven Pigeon

    At my local public libraries there are lots of old people who come to the library to read newspapers and lots of students who study using the library’s free internet connection in a quiet environment.

    Comment by Mark S — 13/9/2014 @ 15:27

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