The Death of the Book
May 09, 2014

The Death of the Book

Hennessey Herrera, recently 16, has a lot to say about books. I’d like to share it with you. Hennessey is a member of a speech and debate club for home schoolers. She delivered her talk, “The Death of the Book” at a recent competition sponsored by the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association.


The Death of the Book

By Hennessey Herrera
“I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There were no books in it… No such luck. None had been printed for nearly half a century. No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory…. The books were crystals with recorded contents…. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it…. Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles….The question of printings, of their quantity, of their running out, had ceased to exist. Actually, a great achievement, and yet I regretted the passing of books.”

This excerpt, taken from Stanislaw Lem’s futuristic novel Return from the Stars written in 1961, might not sound all that futuristic. An insignificant several years ago, one might’ve gone to a library, browsed the volumes of books, dusted one off that appealed to them, and started reading. When’s the last time you went to a library? If it’s recently, then I applaud you. But for many of us, turning on an e-reader, skimming the menu of book titles, and reading electronically seems so much more convenient. However, when this happens, elements of reading are lost as well as the reading experience and reading comprehension. Today, we’re going to see why books made of paper and ink are more enriching than those made of pixels. And even in a world where the death of books is swiftly approaching, why we should choose to read physical books.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that in order to see where something is going, we must first look into it’s past. In the case of the book, it all started in ancient China. During the Tang dynasty, around the first century A.D., a peculiar object made of paper and bound with string was born. It was fragile, it was baffling, it was book.

Now of course, it caught on right away, but the life of the book wouldn’t be an easy one. Fast forward to 1933, Nazi Germany. We’re all aware of the book burnings that took place in that time period; any book that was deemed against the German spirit was to be cleansed by fire. Thus began the murders of thousands of books, an awful thing, and yet books are once more beginning to disappear.

Interestingly enough, their disappearance has actually been predicted. Almost 250 years ago, Louis-Sebastien Mercier wrote that by the year 2440, humankind would

“extract the substance of thousands of volumes, which they have included in a small duodecimo”
This so called duodecimo being about the size of an iPad or iPhone.

In Isaac Asimov’s short story entitled The Fun They Had, written in the 50’s, it says 

“Today Tommy found a real book! It was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to- on a screen. When they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.’”

The list goes on and on. One of my personal favorites is from Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1863 by Jules Verne,

“Michel searched for literature… but nothing but technology was available in bookstores.”
The interesting thing about this one is that the editor scorned Verne and his ideas for being too fantastical and said that no-one would believe his prophecy. Verne hid the book away soon after, and it was only discovered more than 100 years later. Little did the editor know….

So what is happening to books? You’ve probably noticed it; the closing of Borders, the bankruptcy of Barnes and Noble. We’re witnessing the death of the book on a daily basis!

So what’s killing it?

The biggest perpetrators are the e-readers. The Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone, and everything in between is considered an e-reader, and ever since 2006, their popularity has only increased and physical, paper books have only decreased. You might be asking yourself; well why is this a bad thing? There are several reasons.

The first is that the book isn’t the only thing being killed. There’s also the library. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics reports that the average North American borrows .7 books per year. Because of this, libraries are trying to morph from real-life institutions to online services.

For example, take Norway. Norway’s National Library is digitalizing its entire collection of books, and it plans to be finished in the next 15 years. Ironically, the word library is derived from the Latin word libraria, meaning bookshop, but in a sad twist of events, libraries are having to scramble to stay relevant in today’s technology driven world. In the UK alone, it’s predicted that around one thousand libraries will be shut down by 2016.

America is affected too. Entire branches of libraries are shutting down across the country. This is happening on a global scale, and  I believe that in our lifetimes, we’re going to see the death of libraries as we know them.

And with the death of libraries comes the loss of accessibility. What about the people who rely on libraries to have a book to read? What about the people who can’t afford a Kindle, iPad, or Nook?

As we can see, the loss of real, physical books doesn’t end there. It leads to the loss of libraries, accessibility, and much more.

It’s a mistake. And because of this, I would ask you to read a book. A real one.  For us bibliophiles, we don’t have to think twice about it. The mere presence of a book is excuse enough; the way it feels in your hands, the bending of the spine, the crinkle of fresh pages, even the way the book smells. And of course, the satisfactory closing of the book after you’ve finished reading it. These things transform a book from ordinary reading material into an experience.

But maybe you don’t really care whether you read from a real book or an e-reader, maybe you like the technology aspect of it. If that’s indeed the case, then you should still favor paper books for multiple reasons: paper books never run out of battery. Their pages always load. They never lose their data and are virus free. They’re drop resistant and their screens never crack. You can buy a used book, and you don’t have to turn it off on a plane. While e-readers, on the other hand, can’t be signed by authors. And since they’re technology driven, their data could potentially be altered. Think about it; if e-readers had been around in Nazi Germany, the Nazi’s wouldn’t have burned them. Instead, they would have changed the content in the digital books or deleted them altogether.

Now that we’ve seen the superiority of physical books, let’s also take a look at their reading comprehension. It turns out that the brain interprets written letters and words as physical objects. And our minds work in a way that prefer to perceive actual things, not symbols. Nicholas Carr, a technology oriented author says

“The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them… [is] important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works….We develop a mental map of the contents of a printed page. If you’ve ever picked up a book that you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.”
In other words, physical books increase reading comprehension, because they’re just that: physical. What this all really crystalizes down into is the fact that a physical book isn’t simply bought and read; it’s experienced. And that experience helps our brains comprehend what it is we’re reading. Whether you experience a real book or not, is up to you. But I believe that something as valuable as the book shouldn’t be killed off just because it might seem outdated and antiquated. The implications of it’s death lead to other things as well, such as the loss of libraries, accessibility, and comprehension. Ernest Hemingway once said
“There is no friend as loyal as the book.”
Will you reciprocate that loyalty?

It’s time to acknowledge that this loyal friend, the book, which has been by our sides for centuries, is going away. It’s disappearing. But it doesn’t have to.

Just like all good books, a speech must come to an end. But I hope that the next time you feel like reading, rather than turning on your e-reader, you’ll reach for a real book. Do you believe that books are something we can afford to lose? And if they are lost, will you regret their disappearance?

“The question of printings, of their quantity, and of their running out had ceased to exist. Actually, a great achievement, and yet I regretted the passing of books.”

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