Paper Graveyards: Thoughts on the Future of Books

A few weeks ago, while I was running errands, I found myself driving by one of those giant Barnes & Noble Bookstores. Almost of its own will, my car steered itself into the parking lot and then my feet marched themselves into the bookstore, carrying me along for the ride. Okay, I didn’t complain about the unexpected side trip to one of my favorite places on Earth. Bookstores! I have always loved them. However, ever since I began reading books on my Kindle, my visits to real live bookstores have dwindled to far and few between.

I was looking forward to wandering through the aisles and browsing the shelves without anything specific in mind since it’s the discovery of the unexpected novel that always excites me most when it comes to bookstore adventures. So, when I walked insider, I was completely taken aback by the enormous Nook Center that had taken over the heart of the store. Where a small information desk had once stood, an enormous Nook sign now rose, towering above the stacks and beaming its fluorescent light across the shelves of paper books. NOOK. NOOK. NOOK.

The once modest and humble Nook stand, which had been part of the information desk, had evolved into a media monster. Barnes & Noble now had its own Mount Doom with the NOOK sign beaming down at me like the Eye of Sauron, following me no matter where I went in the store. NOOK. NOOK. NOOK.

Through the aisles and along the shelves there was always a clear line of sight to B&N’s unblinking electronic eye.

NOOK. NOOK. NOOK. The word blasted its message into my brain even as I forced myself to focus on the paper. Look at those lovely covers! Solid books to hold in your hands, to get signed by your favorite authors, and to place like trophies upon your personal bookshelves. Still, no matter how beautiful and exciting the covers were, my eyes were constantly drawn to Barnes & Noble’s version of Mount Doom: The Nook Center.

I grabbed a copy of Nancy Holder’s new book ON FIRE: A TEEN WOLF NOVEL and held it to my chest like a shield as I hurried to the register, scurrying through the store, trying not to make eye contact with the Nook. I had to get out of the store without picking up a NOOK. NOOK. NOOK. After all, what would my Kindle say if I brought home another eReader? That’s a conversation I’m not ready to have until my Kindle shows some sign of aging, breaking, dying, or needing an update. After four years, it still works like a champ. Plus, it has about a hundred books on it.

On my way home from Barnes & Noble, I stopped at a yard sale that had shiny beautiful objects spread out across a man’s lawn and up his driveway toward the garage. It was the shiny object that made me stop, but it was the sea of science fiction and fantasy books that held me there for nearly an hour as I sorted through what I can only call the most amazing library of books that I have seen in years. Bradbury. Asimov. Brooks. Tolkien. Martin. Pohl. Heinlein. Wells. Herbert. Jordan. Gibson. King. The names go on and on and on as did the boxes!

The thing is, I had just escaped the NOOK and I had just finished singing the praises of my Kindle. In stark contrast I was now wandering around boxes upon boxes of paper book, pulling out treasures of the past, and for a moment I stepped back to take a picture of my amazing discovery and the thought hit me that I was sifting through a paper graveyard. I was searching through books that had once been a man’s prized collection, but were now abandoned to the masses for the meager prices of $0.25 for paperbacks and hardbacks for a $1.00. The books were piles in stacks and crammed into boxes like headstones that were too weary of standing upon their shelves, and I felt a terrible sadness as I realized I had many of these books on my Kindle.

I walked among a paper graveyard remembering the first time that I read The Sword of Shannara, and here it is was–a first edition. Seeing that Terry Brooks novel brought back fond memories from my teenage years of me lying down on our living room carpet and reading the first of many new Shannara books to come while listening to this cool new band named U2. The sense memory from that experience was so strong that I felt like a child again as I held the yard sale book in my hand. It was an experience that I never felt with any book that I have read on my Kindle.

Books are going digital. People are shopping online. Reading is now done on a tablet. People want extra space in their houses so they replace the paper with electronic files (that are not nearly as permanent at they may seem) and in come the NOOKs, Kindles, and digital downloads. How can we possibly stand against a future where books can be purchased and read with a click of a button and where we can store entire libraries within a thin object no larger than a paperback?

The idea of having a worldwide library literally at our fingertips is an exciting and thrilling prospect. The question is what will be lost if the paper is removed from the reading experience? How does turning a paper page affect your experience of reading a story and how does seeing the spines of your favorite books liked up like proud soldiers upon your shelves make you feel? Electronic books once purchased are little more than digital links with no physical representation of the story that you just experienced. Ebooks lack the heft and power that come with holding 300 pages of bound paper in your hand and can’t possibly compete with the beauty of book spines placed upon your shelf. How far will the digital revolution go? How many more paper graveyards will be spread out across our lawns and driveways with each paper tombstone being sold $0.25 for a paperback and $1.00 for hardcover. How many books will be dumped into recycling bins and landfills? What will we lose in the process of going digital?

Then again, what will be gained? More importantly, how will the value of paper books change over time for readers, writers, and publishers?

I look at my bookshelves in my house, and the sadness of seeing the paper book industry contract changes to something else. In the past, our books were bound with engraved leather and decorated with gold lettering. When the industry changed to hardcovers with dust jackets and pulpy paperbacks, we retained our love and appreciation for the books that came before even as people bemoaned the loss of the beautifully bound books. However, those books have never quite left us. In fact, I don’t think they ever will.

Old books are kept as collectables while new books continue to be printed for those of us who love to hold a good book in our hands. Our books may be growing more and more digital by the day, however, Mount Doom and the NOOK. NOOK. NOOK. can never replace the reading experience or the beauty of our paper treasures placed lovingly upon our shelves. Some books might end up in paper graveyards, but I believe that paper books will always remain a vital and valued part of the reading experience–even if we do most of our reading on tablets, Kindles, and NOOKs in the future.

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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4 Responses to Paper Graveyards: Thoughts on the Future of Books

  1. Redhead says:

    beautiful, beautiful post.

    paper books aren’t going anywhere. yes, Mount Doom Nook is here to stay, as is Kindle and the other reader devices. but paperbooks will still be floating around for those of us interested in the search for them. the book selling industry is what’s changing so fast. the B&N in my town is one of the smaller floor plans, and you can barely get through the front door before the Nook stand screams in your face to stop and look. So in 5 years we may not be buying paper books at places like B&N, but we’ll still be buying them, maybe from the guy down the road who has his life splayed out on his front lawn in the months before children move him to the old folks home.

  2. roamingelk says:

    I think that with time paper books will take on a role much like vinyl records, which become increasingly popular with music fanatics. Not everyone will have them, but the people who care will have those physical objects for the sake of having something to show (and I suppose, show off) for what they read. That said, I am endlessly conflicted about digital and paper books. I live in Central America and good paper books in English aren’t available and so I’ve taken to reading on my computer, not the nicest on the eyes, but better than reading a mediocre book. At the same time, I feel like there is something that’s just wrong with the fact that more and more literature is becoming dependent on electricity to exist. Great post.

  3. Pingback: Introducing my new toy: The Nook! « The Orient Diary

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