Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are Books Still Relevant In The Internet Age?

Another article appeared yesterday, this time in the Wall Street Journal, once again sounding the death knell of the book and bookstore (I am referring to both as physical entities in the real world rather than wandering electrons on the information superhighway).

Are books still relevant in today's world of information on demand? Do bookstores still have a social role as gathering places, that so called, Third Place?

The Kindle, Sony's Reader, Microsoft's eReader, iPod's and even cell phones have become platforms for reading electronic editions of books. The book can go anywhere, be accessed anytime. With wireless access to the Internet, books can be downloaded as you wait for a flight in an airport or sip a latte at Starbucks. The digital genie is out of the fiber-optic bottle.

Yet, according to the Census Bureau, bookstore sales surged by 4.7% in January and 11.4% in February. Keep in mind the Census Bureau definition of bookstore sales: bookstore sales are of new books and do not include "electronic home shopping, mail-order, or direct sale" or used book sales. Although the age-old grocery store question may now apply to books, "Paper or plastic (enclosed electronic reading device?)," this simple question may be more difficult to answer when applied to books.

Lee Gomes, the author of the Wall Street Journal article, said in essence, that he didn't mind reading a book on his cellphone (or in this case his BlackBerry) after having discovered the ease and convenience of reading a book on a Sony Reader. He did draw the line at reading "Anna Karenina" on a wristwatch reader.

Interestingly enough, the other day on my way home, I walked down the aisle of the light rail car I was on and counted how many people were reading books, using cellphones, or listening to music. There are approximately 60 seats on the train, which were all filled, and another 15-20 people were standing. By my count, 33 people were reading books, 10 were using cellphones, 2 were using PDA's, and 15 were listening to music, leaving about 22 people staring out the window watching the graffiti roll by. Most cell phone users were talking while 3-4 were texting. I don't know if the PDA users were reading books; I didn't want to lean over their shoulders to find out.

My unscientific survey tells me reading actual books isn't dead quite yet. My gut feeling is that books still have a long way to go before we cast them off forever in favor of the digital domain.

In turn, bookstores still have relevance as a place to go to find books to read. Walmart and Costco may cut into bookstore sales, but how many books do they carry? Two or three hundred titles? Where do you go when they no longer carry the book you want? Amazon.com? Barnes & Noble.com? Borders.com? University Campus Store.com? Many people can and do. But how many of us walk, bike or drive to the local bookstore (independent or chain) to wander through aisles filled with books we might never otherwise see on-line? We go to a physical bookstore because that where the books AND the people are. The act of reading is mostly a solitary activity, but browsing, buying and sharing books is much more social. We look for recommendations, watch the bestseller lists for what others are reading, join book clubs, and look at what other people are picking up and reading at the bookstore.

Hunched over our internet devices, downloading and reading books, may be a matter of convenience (except for the eyestrain), but it is the social nature of books and the bookstore that will keep them relevant for years to come.

What do you think?

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