As we’ve moved into the digital age, the book has become iconic for many avid readers, a symbol of some past to which they cling as they decry the loss of print on paper to the new media. This is understandable. With every shift in cultural paradigms has come resistance from those who have become comfortable in the old ways. This is no different than clinging to the horse and buggy with the advent of the automobile or insisting the Earth is flat while coercing those who have proved otherwise to renege.
There’s no need to mourn the loss of books printed on paper. They’ll remain with us and continue to be made, though their role in human communication may become increasingly less important. There will always be books and readers who prefer the tactile and even at times sensual experience of reading them.
While it may carry a certain sentimental value for many, this artifact we call a book is not what’s most important. Far more important is the content, the stories and the knowledge found within the book. In human history, the printed book is a relatively recent arrival, having existed for only about 600 years of humanity’s thousands of years existence.* The content we now find in books has always been with us, communicated from person to person and culture to culture through various media, beginning with gestures, touch, and speech.
In recent decades, information has begun to inhabit and be communicated through an escalating variety of new post-book media, a mix which includes oral sharing reminiscent of older cultures without ever diminishing the advances in communication made since prehistory. More and more, the collective conscious and the universal intelligence are being facilitated. This doesn’t mean that books in print will disappear but that their primacy as our medium of communication will continue to decline as new media is developed and carries humanity into the future.
The artifact is not important. If books go the way of papyrus and clay tablets, the stories will still be with us along with the knowledge they contain and the wisdom that comes with it. Like books, the new media will enhance and support the memory we all share. The method of transmission and sharing is not important so long as the content continues to grow and be shared.
*Brian Howald, a Canadian author and publisher, has correctly suggested I should mention that, while Gutenberg opened the possibility for printed books about six centuries ago, most people in society only started learning how to read in the 1850s, less than 200 years ago. Even in the early years of the 20th Century many were still illiterate. Reading per sé didn`t become a recreational pastime until at least the World War I era. Brian believes that, a century later, we seem to be going back to a society that doesn’t read. While this may or may not be true, it doesn’t mean that we’re not continuing to acquire knowledge in much older ways and through a variety of new media or that books won’t continue to exist in our future.