I was on an ebook panel at the local library yesterday, speaking with a writing group, and the inevitable defense of bookstores arose. I've come to believe this is an emotional issue, not an issue of logic, data, or even the reality that is occurring all around us--bookstores are closing, and rapidly. I'm not here to gleefully dance on graves, since I like bookstores and they have helped sell my books in the past. But the idea that "Paper books CAN'T die out because I like them" is not going to stop paper books from their rapid decline. They are nice artifacts that give many of us comfort, but the incredible drain of resources to get a book from Point A to Point B will forevermore put it at a competive disadvantage.
Paper books are already clear artifacts to me, comfort items for the shelf. Oddly, I have been reading paper books more than my Kindle lately--but this doesn't mean I've "decided that paper is better." No, I am clinging to the last bits of nostalgia and indulging in some works that might never be available in digital form.
I took my wife to an antique store a couple of weeks ago--proof of the depths of my love and sacrifice, if you know how much I abhor any form of shopping--and I was startled how much of the store was occupied by books. Yes, books are already antiques, even while the major publishers churn out tens of thousands of copies of the latest trendy fiction and celebrity bios. You could look at those huge bestsellers as signs of publishing health, but they actually reflect the disease--publishing is only practical on a blockbuster level: Many sales each of a few titles, not a few sales each of a few million niche titles.
In the store, I found a stack of Dean Koontz books and thumbed through them, mostly out of curiosity, since I have enough Koontz paperbacks to last a lifetime. But I found a tattered 1977 copy of Demon Seed, the movie tie-in edition of the 1973 novel. On top of it was the newer, re-released and thicker version. For those who don;t know, Koontz revised most of his books as he got the rights back and re-released them. In the new version, I read the afterward where Koontz explains how he cleaned up the book and honed it. Of course, I was far more interested in the old version, the rawer, less polished, version. Koontz often works too hard to remove any provocative edge in his books, and my only complaint with him is that his protagonists are always too relentlessly and predictably noble, cheerful, and idealistic. To see how Koontz changed in the quarter-century between the two versions, simply read the Wikipedia entry on the book and what you find is an unfortunate case of revisionist history.
The moral of the story is that there is no morality in the paper/digital war. Times change, no one is wrong, neither is inherently "better." For this reader and writer, I know when I am buying an artifact and not just a story. I often delete digital books after I finish them. I often give away paperbacks after I've finished them. Maybe I'll keep Demon Seed awhile. Maybe not. It's fun to read precisely because I can see the anti-Koontz in it, the smirky little twenty-something writer who delighted in being a bit naughty and edgy. What you could call "the artifact Koontz."
Bookstores are turning into antique stores. But that's okay, because we cherish our artifacts. And perhaps we will even value these artifacts more when they are no longer widely available. Do you cling to any similar artifacts you know are artifacts? Cassette tapes that mark a time in your life? Videocassettes? Old paper books?