Jorge Luis Borges once claimed he couldn't sleep unless he was surrounded by books. If he were alive today, the great Argentine writer might not be sleeping so comfortably. Amazon recently announced that its e-books are now outselling its paperbacks, raising the spectre of the printed book's extinction. It's hard to imagine Mr. Borges happily drifting off in a bedroom filled with Kindles or iPads, but e-books do have some compensations that may make writers sleep better. Not the least is the superior royalty rate and lower price tag. The latter whittles away at the former but, a writer can hope, might lead to higher sales.
But these are economic benefits. Other changes may not be so welcome. For readers and writer alike, a book is, as John Updike once wrote, "a palpable piece of our environment, a material souvenir of the immaterial experience it gave us." A sobering disadvantage for authors, if paper books ever do disappear, is that they will see their labours bear fruit not as these palpable pieces of the environment - artifacts handsomely bound for proud display on the shelf or in a bookstore window - but as transient puffs of megabytes that have no material existence until someone fires up an electronic reader.
Despite Amazon's hyperventilating statistics, there's no real evidence to suggest that paper books are on the verge of extinction. The Association of American Publishers has reported that, in the first half of 2010, book sales in the United States increased by more than 8 per cent, and hardcover and softcover sales, taken together, exceed those of e-books. Marshall McLuhan's now 45-year-old prediction of its demise demonstrates how the printed book has always been late for its funeral. The printing press itself did not, for many decades, render illuminated manuscripts obsolete. The greatest collectors of the Renaissance preferred handwritten manuscripts, with Federigo da Montefeltro stocking his library in Urbino exclusively with books that were "written with the pen, and had there been one printed volume it would have been ashamed in such company." Mr. Borges can, for the time being at least, rest easy in his great library in the sky.
Ross King is author of Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven .
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