Let’s compare two dining scenarios. Imagine rushing home in anticipation of preparing dinner. You retrieve the ingredients from the pantry and fridge, assemble the implements, and proceed to fill the kitchen with the aromas and sounds of cooking that are so much a part of your home life. Then you sit down and enjoy the product of your labor, sating your senses with the tastes, textures, and aromas you’ve prepared. Now imagine rushing home, again in anticipation of preparing dinner. But you retrieve an ingredient (in pill form) from the jar it came in, and you swallow it. Dinner over. Which scenario do you prefer?
Even if the pill had all the vitamins of the “real meal” and replicated its tastes, I’m pretty sure that your choice would be the real meal. Convenience, economy, speed, and other such rational advantages don’t always hold sway with us humans. Sensory experience and a tactile relationship with our surroundings are inextricably part of our self-perception and our world perception.
Now take publishing. Is it possible to draw a parallel between books and dinner by positing that the experience of reading real books can never be replaced? Is the joy of holding a well-designed book cover and leafing through pages about to be replaced with a book pill?
Before sharing my view with you, let me continue with a couple more examples. Do you remember when the VCR arrived? The number of cinemagoers decreased at the same rate at which the number of video stores increased. If I’d asked you at the time what you thought the future held for the cinema industry, your answer would have predicted its demise. Then when surround sound and large home-video systems came to market, it would have appeared that your predictions were about to be confirmed.
But, for some reason, cinemas regained their popularity. Patrons realized that the viewing experience wasn’t about large screens, Dolby stereo, or surround sound, but about the creation of atmosphere. The viewing experience was about the cinema environment bustling with humanity, all gathered to share the same experience as a community.
Let’s consider the shopping experience. Do you recall the recently and commonly held conviction that traditional shopping was on its way out, in favor of virtual shopping? Presumably, we’d peruse online malls instead of window-shopping in real malls. That vision has yet to become reality; not even the glitziest 3D graphics can supplant the offline shopping adventure.
So, back to publishing. The book is more than a century-old medium for conveying ideas. Its status as a vehicle for learning, disseminating knowledge, and building and reflecting cultures has elevated the book to being part of our collective mental condition, as well as being an artifact. We recognize books as being part of the history of ideas, as well as being part of our individual histories: the smell of the pages, the light breeze that wafts the aroma in the air as you flick through them, the volume’s weight in your hands… The book’s tangible relationship to our memory and everyday experience secures its value and renders that value irreplaceable.
But there are lots of things about books that we could improve. The book is old the very day it’s published; it’s bulky; its production contributes to environmental degradation; it’s expensive to manufacture, and so on. Yet the remedies to these characteristics needn’t spell the demise of the book. The book experience is, as I’ve said, irreplaceable. But it is augmentable. And it’s clicks-and-mortar that will strike the magic balance between real books and e-books, between retailers and e-tailers, and between the real world and the virtual world.
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