THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Tom Keane

The last chapter

The end of books is good for writers and readers

(Greg Klee/Globe Staff)
By Tom Keane
April 3, 2011

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BORDERS in Boston’s Back Bay is closing, a familiar story in a recession that has laid waste to many once-prominent names. But this time, something’s different.

When most stores fail, we understand that to be some combination of bad luck, poor management, and hard times. It’s tough luck for investors and employees, but not really for us as consumers. We know we’ll always have places to shop for clothing, furniture, electronics, and the like.

Not so with books. When Borders shutters, Boston will have, permanently, one fewer bookstore. Barnes & Noble won’t be eyeing its empty site on Boylston Street as a possible location for expansion. Nor will we see any new bookstore start-ups. There are a great many business ideas where some entrepreneur can strike it rich; bookselling is no longer one of them.

The book is dead. Books (and by “books’’ I mean words printed on paper with a hard- or softcover binding) trace their inception in the 1440s to one extraordinary new technology: the printing press. New technology as well — readers, tablets, and smartphones — mark their end. It’s been a marvelous, nearly six-century ride, but now it’s over. Two weeks ago, the American Association of Publishers reported that January sales for adult hardcovers were down 11.3 percent, adult paperbacks were down 19.7 percent, and adult mass market books down 30.0 percent. Expect to see those kinds of numbers repeated.

Not all kinds of books will suffer as badly, of course. Children’s books and art books — where layout and graphics are paramount — will persist. Paper is still (for a time) a better medium than digital screens for complex layouts and — especially relevant for kids — far better at absorbing spills and accidental drops. But when it comes to long-form, picture-free books such as novels, paper no longer makes sense. Electronic readers are this year’s hot-selling items because they really are a better way to read. They’re lighter, more portable, and easier to use. Turning pages is effortless. And as e-books can be readily linked to multiple devices, one is never without a book — if you forgot your Kindle, you can just pick up reading the same book on the same page on your iPad.

E-books are hardly perfect — bookmarking, for example, is still more complicated than bending down a corner — but the technology will inevitably improve. Undoubtedly some will cling to books, entranced with the feel, heft, and smell of paper. For them, there will always be print-on-demand. But they’ll be an increasingly small number, anachronisms similar to writers who could never give up their Smith Coronas.

The death of the book will change things. For many, bookstores are special places of contemplation and discovery, and their loss will be deeply felt. Libraries too will have to rethink. Eventually, all books will be converted to a digital medium (even if only scanned), making it unnecessary for someone to visit a place to research or read. Libraries will perhaps evolve into public providers of information, but all of those beautiful buildings? Probably unnecessary.

Even our homes will change. The shelves on which we proudly display the books we have read (or haven’t, but hope to impress others) will stand empty. Indeed, the whole notion of “owning’’ books will eventually seem an oddity, in the same way that displays of CDs or DVDs seem irrelevant to a streaming world.

But is this really that bad? The end of books may be to the betterment of both writers and readers. The expense of publishing and distribution necessarily meant the imposition of middlemen — agents, editors, printers — who picked and chose what would get published. Now anyone can write a novel, for example, and make it available for sale. The industry seems to be figuring out the issue of digital rights management (something the music industry still hasn’t solved), meaning that authors get paid for their creativity. And even though e-books are less expensive than books, arguably more of that will get back to the people involved in their creation.

Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that “the medium is the message.’’ I’ve never understood why. It is the message — “the information,’’ as journalist James Gleick calls it — that matters. Books die. Digital rises. The medium changes; the message remains.

Tom Keane (tomkeane@tomkeane.com) writes regularly for the Globe.