Today, Seth Godin’s daily blog post (which I love by the way) is called “An end of books.” Seth talks about how printed books are doomed and the entire ecosystem that surrounds them is doomed, too. For example, the bookstore is a goner because they are already operating on very slim margins. With more people buying eBooks and purchasing printed books online, the scale will tip, bookstores will lose money, and they will be gone. We’ve already seen this with Borders, and I’ve read that Barnes and Noble is closing even more stores this year.

Seth says that libraries are going to have to stop purchasing expensive books. This just makes me sad. I love libraries and I love being in the presence of books. In addition, traditional publishers, single tasking, reading for pleasure, walls of books, and even what Seth calls “The Pavlovian Response” are all going away. The Pavlovian Response is the [former] automatic reaction to going to a bookstore, purchasing a fabulous new book, rushing home, and then delving in. All gone. Buh-bye.

Fundamentally, I don’t disagree with Seth. I used to think that we’d always need printed books because people like to write in them, dog-ear the pages of important sections, and so on. Technology has addressed each and every one of these formerly tactile operations. Using my favorite eReader, I can bookmark what I want, I can write notes, I can even go social – I can see what other people have underlined, look up difficult terms in an online dictionary, and more. Paper books don’t let me do that.

The only things I can really think of that make a printed book more appealing are 1) the smell and 2) the ability to read during takeoff and landing (and even that is likely to change soon).

Lately, though, I have found myself purchasing printed copies of the business books that I need. There is something about having the book sitting there, on my desk as a reference. For example, my “bible” of global readiness is John Kohl’s, “The Global English Style Guide.” If you translate your content, you must own a copy of this book. For me, a printed copy just works better. Perhaps it’s because I’m already sitting in front of my screen reading or typing, so having a paper copy open on my desk is more convenient. Some of the other books I’ve purchased lately include, “The Culturally Customized Web Site,” by Nitish Singh and Arun Pereira. It is another excellent book, particularly for the academics who like to corellate scientific data with the cultural phenomenon that we see around us. My most recent book purchase is John Yunker’s “Beyond Borders: Web Globalization Strategies.” John’s book was published in 2002, yet is still one of the best resources on the topic.

Novels I can read on my Kindle. No problem. But my “textbooks” are a different story. Speaking of which, did you see that Chegg, the online textbook company, is going to IPO to raise $150 million in funding? I simply cannot imagine doing all of my college and graduate school reading on an eReader. It seems to me that my brain actually functions differently when there is a pencil in my hand (or a highlighter) as I read. And I am not alone. Research indicates this to be the case. The April 11, 2013 issue of Scientific American has a story entitled, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens.” The article covers this very topic and states:

…evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.

I think this leads to an interesting dilemma and one that we need to keep watching. On the one hand, we have influential people predicting the demise of books. On the other, we have scientific research indicating that comprehension decreases when people use screens rather than paper. I can make no predictions either way at this point. I see the rise of eBooks on a daily basis (full disclosure – we create eBooks for customers). Yet, science is showing us that maybe we shouldn’t be so fast to write-off paper.

What do you think?

(BTW, that is a photo of my very own bookcase.)

Val Swisher
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