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The Book’s Alive and Well, Thank You

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“Reports of my death,” said Mark Twain, “have been greatly exaggerated.” So it is with reports of the death of the printed book. From so much of what one reads and hears nowadays, one would think that the book as we know it lies taking its final gasps, mortally wounded in the cross fire of warring new information technologies.

Rumors of the book’s demise abound but, like those about Twain’s death, probably only extend their subject’s renown. Publishers are not likely to mistake the rumors for reality. They’ve been hearing them for some time while the publishing industry has grown and grown up.

But what about those constant reports from the war-ravaged information front? I’m a writer and, like a publisher, I’m obliged to monitor them, for I rely on the machinery of content for ideas. But, like a publisher, I know that books are alive and well. I’m often engaged to write or co-author them — whether for a smaller publisher such as Zinn Publishing Group in New York (Dr. Lynne Freeman’s Panic Free: Eliminate Anxiety/Panic Attacks Without Drugs and Take Control of Your Life, 1995) or a larger, better known one such as McGraw-Hill (my own Business Week’s Ten Trends of the Global Economy, 1997).

My swimming against the tide has taken the form of refusing to accept the reports at face value. I now consider all coverage on the death of the book to be suspect and find it often to be sensational, ill-founded, or specious.

At least 40,000 new titles still appear each year. With desktop publishing technology becoming constantly less expensive and easier to use, that number is only growing. Let the word go out: Regarding books, the sky is not falling. That’s largely due to, not in spite of, information technology.

In 1996, however, a seeming obituary for the late, maligned book appeared in cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Trudeau’s cartoon character, Mike Doonesbury, (a longtime social and political commentator who was recently reinvented as a Seattle computer geek) received a bookmark as a Christmas gift and he didn’t know what it was.

The ultimate funeral pronouncement for the printed book? No. This item hardly means that Americans now do the bulk of their reading (to the extent that they are reading — but that’s a different issue) on video screens. It hardly means that books — and bookmarks — are considerably less recognizable to the public.

People still like books. They continue to buy them, sell them, read them. They are doing so in record numbers. People like books because they are clearly more legible and portable than a laptop computer or CRT. Not to mention their stationary attributes, you might say. Books occupy a shelf in a familiar and comforting way — a way that CD titles or other electronic media cannot and perhaps never will. That’s why bookshelves often have such a generous berth in our abodes, whether to display handsome books or to serve as a tool of honest-to-goodness information retrieval.

On top of everything, books are boomerangs: A book can as deftly catapult from an owner’s hands — as a friendly loan or a suitable gift — as it can lodge its message indelibly in the brain. Not surprisingly, bookstores are doing considerably better than they were but a few years ago. Indeed, they seem to be springing up everywhere, especially as cappuccino-bar hybrids. As yet another predictable irony of the Information Age, critics are raving about online bookseller Amazon.com, which can send a buyer nearly any tome in print (the service offers a gift wrap option in such patterns as “Holstein” and “Snowman.”)

Among authors, talented writers still want their message delivered between the covers of a book more than by any other means, electronic or otherwise. Celebrated or not, most authors clearly believe that people will give more credence to concepts they find in books than to stories rushed onto a disk or into the ether, where interested parties must gopher around to find them.

That’s because print is still bolder and more respectable than digital media — it’s both more readily accessible and less readily fungible. Print isn’t altered or deleted with a keystroke. It doesn’t have to find its way, perhaps perishably, between remote servers in cyberspace or distant satellites in space.

No doubt about it, a writer’s thoughts still achieve considerably more consequence and momentum when enshrined in a book. That’s why even a mega-nerd such as Bill Gates, president of Microsoft, (who no doubt conceded to himself long ago that even he must die eventually and his own billions be taxed at 40%) saw fit to angle for his own shot at posterity by writing a book (a bestseller, by the way, which dexterously posts the reader to hairpin turns on the infohighway).

Not only do superstar celebs still regard books as a medium of choice, but superstar writers still prove that readers do too. Consider novels by the likes of Michael Crichton and John Grisham. They fairly jump off booksellers’ shelves, selling millions of copies. They’re not only entertaining but tend to spin-off movies and home videos.

So, you see, those dusty old artifacts made with petroleum by-products and dead trees are of continuing economic, as well as cultural, importance. Perhaps the technical community needs a dose of consciousness-raising: Ink on paper can produce an objet d’art just as oil on canvas can. A first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit recently fetched $30,000 at auction, according to Robin H. Smiley, publisher of Firsts, a national magazine for book collectors.

Of course, it is true that producing collateral versions of a title in high-tech format, as publishers increasingly do, can be profitable and useful. For example, encyclopedias are now purchased more frequently on CD-ROM than as hard copy. In CD-ROM form, they are a breeze to use. Parents and librarians report that kids tend to use CD-ROM encyclopedias more willingly than they used encyclopedias as books, and refer to them far more often.

The book trade needs to remember that books provide information. As reference librarians and writers well know, that function is often personally succoring — akin to, as far as I’m concerned, medical care. Thus, for extended writing, the most familiar and accessible medium should be chosen. More often than not, that vehicle remains the printed book. If technophiles still need convincing, let them regard the book — ostensibly invented in the age of Gutenberg, in the fifteenth century (but certainly developed before and after) — as merely a technology ahead of its time.

Bill Becker is owner of BB Communications in West Los Angeles, California, offering freelance authorship-editing to publishers, thinkers and experts.

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