Monday, November 03, 2008

The incredible unvanishing book

At the Inside Higher Ed site, Christopher Conway of the University of Texas at Arlington laments “The Incredible Vanishing Book.”

Conway offers two pieces of evidence for his claim that “[p]aper-and-binding books have irrevocably begun to fade away as products of mass consumption and will soon transform themselves into curios like vinyl records”: the ebook and the decline of student reading.

To start with the first, Amazon’s wireless reading device known as the Kindle is not the only example of ebook technology that is contributing to the disappearance of the book. The availability of public-domain texts, via Project Gutenberg or the Online Library of Liberty, are shrinking the demand and need for reprint editions. And the rise of pay-per-chapter textbooks plus the increasing ease with which professors can “put together affordable ‘readers’ or anthologies culled from existing print material without bypassing rights and fees and without overloading students with unnecessary expense” are imperiling the existence of classroom texts.

More on target—for the disappearance of the monstrosity known as the textbook would be a welcome development—is Conway’s claim, backed by personal experience, that college students just “are not consumers of books” and “are reading less paper than before.”

As an English professor myself, I can attest to the fact that student reading habits have changed. Although I routinely append a bibliography of secondary sources to my course syllabuses, I can count on one hand the number of students who, in eighteen years, have cited any of them in their papers.

Upon closer examination, though, it is not clear exactly what Conway is saying. As an example of what he means, he points to one of his students, “a talented and curious young man who arrives to class with an ipod plugged into his ears . . . a graduating senior who had never read a novel before my class.”

But surely there is a difference between someone who is not a “consumer of books” and someone who does not read novels—even if he reads nothing else besides. More and more, on Conway’s own evidence, you can read book-length texts in electronic form without buying them in octavo volumes bound between hard covers.

Now that I think of it, there is also a difference between classroom and after-school reading. In eighteen years on the job, I have assigned textbooks or anthologies only when teaching the history and theory of literary criticism. And then only because the texts in that class are such that no one would want to own them. I tell my students that, whatever else that may or may not get from my class, I want to give them the chance to acquire the beginnings of a library. No one keeps textbooks or those large bulky $50 anthologies in his library.

Acquiring a library, though—in Conway’s phrase, being a lifelong “consumer of books”—has always been a minority pursuit. Texts that are used, at work if not in the classroom, have always been treated as disposable. And the most important thing about them has always been their convenience, their susceptibility to being used.

As a literary scholar, I applaud the coming of ebooks, because they are far more searchable than “paper-and-binding” books. And therefore they are easier to use—for the purposes I need them for.

And as I have gotten older, the books from my younger years, when thermal or so-called “perfect” binding was widespread, are starting to fall apart. I face the choice, with each one, whether to replace it with a sewn hardback or to chuck it from my collection.

These, it strikes me, are the two categories into which books will fall for most readers: those which are needed for practical activities and those which are collected, treasured, preserved from destruction. Even college students have books that fall into the second category, even if they are Bibles. (Most of my students, who are Evangelical Protestants, instinctively grasp the importance of high-quality bookbinding when it comes to the personal Bible they choose for themselves, because they want it to last for many years.)

The Kindle or wireless reading device will be welcomed by most “consumers of books,” even those who read a lot of books, because they will reduce the physical size of home libraries. But they will not entirely replace “paper-and-binding” books, because not all books are meant only to be used.

Update: My original post was in error on the provenance of Professor Conway’s fine essay. I have corrected the first line to reflect where it was actually posted. Apologies for not more carefully distinguishing print from online publication—exactly the subject of Conway’s essay!


Gregory A. Smith said...

It was interesting to read both sides of the discussion. I have one minor correction: Conway's original contribution was posted at Inside Higher Ed (, not in the Chronicle of Higher Education.