Reinventing the Book and Killing It are Separate Things

Richard Cohen has a bone to pick with Amazon, the Kindle, digital books, and anyone who threatens the welfare of bookstores, children and unknown literature. From Cohen’s Washington Post column:

… over at Amazon they are inadvertently thinking of ways to make the world worse for children and for the grown-ups who love them to pieces. What Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s founder, wants more than anything is to do away with the book as we know it. “Jeff once said that he couldn’t imagine anything more important than reinventing the book,” said Steven Kessel, one of Bezos’s top guys. Kessel is in charge of digitizing everything in sight.

Nothing more important than reinventing the book? Not ending world hunger? Not taking Rush Limbaugh off the air? None of these? What’s wrong with the book? I understand that it’s bulky and expensive to ship and that it entails the consumption of paper, which is probably not green, but then what is? The book has been around for a very long time (Google the exact number of years, please), and I love it so.

Cohen’s column adheres to the “book lover overreaction” we’ve discussed previously. Market forces and changing consumer tastes may indeed signal the end of traditional bookstores, and that’s something to lament and fight against. But this idea that digital books have been set loose by entrepreneurial masterminds — diabolical sorts intent on destroying the print universe — is overwrought. “Reinventing” the book is not synonymous with “killing the print book.” Digital books are nothing more than alternative delivery mechanisms for content. Their intent (if ebooks can have intent) is to expand choice, not eradicate the printed volume.

I can’t tell if Cohen is saying goodbye to print books or bookstores or some combination of the two. His column is clearly a cathartic exercise, not a market analysis, but the association he seems to make between a downturn in bookstores and the rise of digital books is incorrect. Bookstores are in decline partly because consumers are purchasing their core product — print booksthrough online retailers like Amazon. Ebooks may eventually achieve widespread adoption and, by extension, lead to the shuttering of traditional bookstores, but that’s not currently the case.

(Via Shelf Awareness)

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