Want to Hear a Really Scary Story?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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What a digital library looks like. Photo: Jonathan Liu

This week I came across one of the scariest stories I’ve read in some time. It doesn’t have zombies or vampires or werewolves, dastardly masterminds or super-powered villains or even your guy-next-door-who-turns-out-to-be-evil. What makes it frightening to me, actually, is what it doesn’t have: books.

Well, okay, that’s not technically true. “The Future of Books: A Dystopian Timeline” (posted this week on TechCrunch) paints a picture of the future of publishing, and in this world, digital publishing will supplant traditional publishing as soon as 2025, at which point people like me will be the last hold-outs, futilely clinging to our nostalgia for ink on paper.

I mean, it makes sense. Why continue mulching trees to make paper to print physical objects that are heavy, take up space, and aren’t getting purchased anyway? Why have stores that take up valuable physical space when you can store a library’s worth of knowledge on a few hard drives, and carry around a collection in your backpack? The timeline predicts that by 2020 nearly every student from middle school to college will have an e-reader, obviating the need for textbooks.

But there’s the rub: nearly.

What about all the kids who can’t afford one? By some estimates, tens of millions of Americans (let alone those in poorer countries) can’t afford to buy physical books, let alone a Kindle, despite price drops. While computers and cell phones and tablets have become more and more ubiquitous, it’s still a hard fact that there are many students who simply don’t have the money to buy one, and it’s clear that the US educational system doesn’t have the money to provide everyone with one. Sure, there are some schools working to provide every child with a laptop, or now an iPad. But that is probably not going to be a widespread solution, particularly in more cash-strapped areas of the country. And in many cases that still won’t solve the problem of young children having books to read.

It’s been shown that having access to books at an early age is a huge predictor of future success, and for a book lover like me it’s hard to imagine my kids growing up without books. But I can’t argue that this isn’t a growing trend. An article from this past May in the New York Times highlights the First Book Marketplace, which tries to democratize book ownership by connecting publishers with those in need. Author David Bornstein remarks that since publishers are cutting back on print runs, there are fewer extras leftover for donations to schools and nonprofits.

Another recent article in the People’s Daily Online reflects on the power of the printed page, and tries to imagine a world in which that doesn’t exist. It shows that the question of digital surpassing paper isn’t just a possibility here in the US, but is a concern in China as well. And according to this article in The Age, Australia is feeling the same pressures: the city of Greater Dandenong, with 140,000 residents, just lost its last bookstore.

Sure, many people in the world can shop online for books, whether digital or paper, but it’s not a solution for everyone. With an estimated 1.4 billion people in the world not even having access to electricity, when are ebooks supposed to trickle down to them? You can send a book to a child in Africa for 50 cents — how long until the price of a Kindle Fire drops to that? (And, more importantly, how long will paper books even be around to purchase for 50 cents?)

I know, you’re all tired of me singing the praises of paper books, about how the texture and feel and smell and weight of a tangible book has intangible value — but think for a moment about what else is lost with the end of ink on paper. Gutenberg took literature from the wealthy and put it into the hands of the masses with his printing press. E-Readers are doing the opposite. Is this the fate of our country (or our world) — the rich become richer, the poor become poorer, and even the most basic tools of education and upward mobility are no longer available to those who need them the most?

What’s scariest, to me, is the idea that this dystopian timeline could very well be true. While the dates might not be exact, I think the general chain of events seems quite likely. In a few short years, we might find that Ray Bradbury’s dystopian vision of Fahrenheit 451 was mistaken — there won’t be any books left to burn.

I don’t have a solution, but I think at the very least we should continue buying paper books at least some of the time. Make donations to places like First Book or Reading Tree or Book Aid International. Check out Dallas Clayton’s Awesome World, which gives away a copy of his book for each book sold. Support folks like the crazy people at Street Books which makes sure that people living outside still have access to books. Give books to schools and libraries. Buy books as birthday presents for kids.

Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent the book from becoming “at best, an artifact and at worst a nuisance.”

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