Aicha Zoubair

Jessica Bell

Friday, September 20, 2013

Wither the Book? by Hudson Owen

When I moved from Park Slope in Brooklyn to Marine Park, in 1998, I noticed that the bulk of my possessions were books.  I crammed as many as I could into my small apartment and stored the remainder in the garage, being careful to elevate the cardboard boxes off the floor so that I would not lose my treasures to dry rot.

The fact that I lacked instant access to all my books did not bother me.  My distance from the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library did.  Whereas before it was a short walk up the Slope from my apartment on Third Street to the main branch, now I had to walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, take the bus to Kings Highway, wait for the train, and take the train to the Seventh Avenue station, and walk up the hill to the library.

For a short while I made that half hour journey to Grand Army Plaza to use the stacks, read periodicals and take out books as before.  Then I stopped going.  There is a small branch library in Marine Park, too small, as it turned out, for my needs.  So now, as a writer, I was without a library.

At about that time I discovered the Internet and quickly got online, realizing its huge potential for a writer and as a source of general information and self-advertisement.  I purchased a paperback guide to writers’ sites on the Net and set up an account with Lonely Blue Coyote, where I placed poems and summaries of novels and other works online, and waited for the literary world to come to me.

Nothing came of those early efforts.  But my view of books and the materials of writing changed.  I found a newsstand in Marine Park where I could purchase the Sunday New York Times, as I had done in Park Slope.  After I got online, and the Times published an online edition, I began to notice how the newspapers piled up in my apartment and, further, that I didn’t really read all the sections.  So I stopped buying the Sunday Times, thereby saving $2 and all that paper to bundle up for the trash.  True, I now lacked the full Book Section, but I enjoyed reading the online reviews; and besides, books were all over the Web.

All of which has prepared me for the next big change coming in publishing.

I remember when, about six or seven years ago, a man setting up a digital camera display in a large NYC camera store, leaned my way and said, “Digital is coming.”  Although it took me several years to sell off my film camera, I knew he was right.
I regard the New York City bus and subway system as a laboratory of sorts: of people and the things they carry.  Believe me, people read plenty of books on the trains and buses.  What surprises me is the number of thick, heavy hardcovers people lug around.  Nearly everyone has a cell phone, or a BlackBerry or iPhone.  You don’t see too many laptops because of the sudden lurches in the subway.

For the past year or so I have been looking for electronic book readers, either the Amazon Kindle or the Sony Reader.  Very rare a few years ago.  All over the place today.  So far, Kindle is winning by numbers.
Digital is coming; digital is here.

Recently, I held a Kindle II in my hand.  It seemed a bit heavy with its leather cover.  The LED screen was not illuminated, but then neither is a paper book.  Despite that, the text was easy to read, and I think it has a text zoom feature.  I was impressed by the close tolerances of the fittings and buttons.  It looked professional.  I was sold.  The only issue with me right now is price.

Obviously these devices will not replace the gorgeous photography and map books one can own today, with stunning color on acid-free stock.   They are text devices, and the pros far outweigh the cons.

Book sales remain strong.  U.S. publishers had net sales of $24.3 billion in 2008, down from $25.0 billion in 2007, representing a 2.8% decrease.  In the last six years the industry had a compound annual growth rate of 1.6%.  So people will be reading paper books for years to come.  What I am writing about here is the emotional wringing book lovers, especially older folk, will go through as they declare their loyalty to the book as they have known it in the face of growing electronic book sales.

I love books.  I always have, and I always will.  My parents bought them for me, read them to me, and I became a precocious reader in school; I read two years above my grade level.  I own books signed by authors, books that have sentimental value.  Mostly, they gather dust on my bookshelves, as I do more and more of my reading online.
In 1977 I began writing a short epistolary novel, Dear Cynthia, about an astronaut aboard a starship in mid-21st Century, to his former wife, now a clone like himself, back on Earth.  Max reminisces  about their literary lives together in the 20th Century.  Aboard the starship, he is a low class librarian who prints hardcopy when it is needed, thus anticipating print-on-demand publishing today.  I end with this reminiscence from the novel about a lost world, the Age of Books, looking backward from mid-21st Century..

“I think of them in Morocco, buckram, tortoise shell, velvet, sturdy and solid in a row on walnut shelves, or sprawled open on a table by the window or beneath a tree in summer.  I think of cheap paperbacks with lurid covers whose pages yellowed quickly and came unglued from their perfect bindings.  I read them by the wagon load.  I think of coffee table books on heavy acid-free stock with sewn signatures and wonderful full color illustrations.  I think of reference books drier than a dead Pharaoh’s skin, but filled with maps and diagrams and long dense paragraphs.  I think of used books I purchased for a dollar with a note tucked between the pages or a name inscribed in graceful calligraphy inside the front cover.  I think of library books with angry comments scribbled in the margin, correcting and reproving the author.  I think of cook books and baby books, slim volumes of verse and bellowing novels, books to improve the self and body.  Books that woke me up and books that put me to sleep.  From double-elephant to the size of a nutshell, they ruled the world.”

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Genre – Essay
Rating – G
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