Are books dead?

Stephen Baker

So here I am on book leave, and the ever provocative Jeff Jarvis declares that books are history.

As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.

He has his points. But they're based on a Web 2.0 orthodoxy that assumes two things, 1) that all of those qualities will be absolutely necessary and 2) that despite the advances of technology, books won't be able to add new Web 2.0 features.

Now, to quibble with some of his arguments. They assume that all of the meaningful conversation has to occur in the present, presumably with people plugged into the Internet. If you want to have a "conversation" with Cervantes or Plato, I'd take a book over any of the interactive tools they're building at MIT or Disney. Books give you access to great minds of the past, and they do a better job than any other medium I know of transporting you to those times and places.

Books do create conversations in our day and age. But most of them aren't on the Internet. Ever heard of a book group?

I wholeheartedly agree that most non-fiction books should be shorter, and many should have been written (or remained) as magazine stories. (What keeps me up at night is the fear that people will draw the same conclusion when my book comes out...) No argument about the gatekeeper's whims. But here's the important point. While gatekeepers publish lots of celebrity trash, me-too tomes, etc., they also publish good work. And if the trash is needed to finance the industry, so be it. From a reader's perspective, only a fraction of a percent has to be great to justify a trip to the bookstore or the library. In that way, books are a little like blogs. And how do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find the good books? That's where the Internet helps.