Skip to content

The Future of Books

Cedar Sanderson

As I sit here, I am surrounded by books. At the periphery of my vision, on either side of my desk, there are tall bookshelves filled with volumes. Somewhere in the dark behind me (I’m writing very early and my office/bedroom is being used for both purposes) there is a stack of books on my nightstand. There are books in my closet, for goodness sakes (I wrote all of those, and they are stacked neatly in boxes). The rest of the house is the same, and my dear reader, I would venture to guess that your homes are similarly accoutered. We are the past of books.

My children are the future of books. I have two still at home, and one who has moved out and is setting up her own tiny nest, well-feathered with her own things, and furniture the parental units set her up with. Which didn’t include a bookshelf. Well. There were bookshelves. But that’s not what they are being used for, in the most part. The Ginja Ninja collects, customizes, and sometimes sells Furbies. So her shelves are full of this wild colorful display of Furbs. And her pet fish in his tank, Red Herring. I think there are a few books on one shelf. But the pride of place in her living room is the big entertainment center with the monitor perched on top where she can connect her Switch and play games that involve feeding cute critters and breeding black roses (I think. They told me in detail but it certainly wasn’t connected to genetics). The two at home each have a single 6′ tall bookshelf, that is… Well. The Little Man (who is taller than I, but prefers his nom d’blog remain the same) was deep cleaning his room recently and burst out to where I was in the living room to announce to me “you have to stop giving me books.”

“What?”

“I haven’t got any room for them! My shelf is full!”

“We could get you another shelf.”

Some time later… “I take that back. I made room on my shelf. I’ll take more books.”

His books, if you were curious, tend to be… well, they aren’t, mostly, antiques. The word is vintage. Antique, in the definition I apply, means more than a hundred years old. Unless it’s a car, and then there are cars younger than I which are antique. Vintage covers the area from antique to ‘modern’ and includes anything up to about 40 years old. To the dismay of my First Reader, as Mid-Century Modern furniture, cookware, and so on is now vintage and highly collectible. “That’s stuff my Mom had on the table when I was a boy.”

“Yes, dear.”

“They want how much for it?”

“It’s vintage.”

So the boy has a shelf full of history books, some of which were not history when they were written, and I have a tendency to gift him old books on mechanical and engineering stuff. Like the book on microwaves that has nothing to do with cooking food. You might not yet see a theme here, but I certainly do from the ground level. The younger generation isn’t not reading. They just tend to not read paper books and then keep them.

It’s not that they don’t read in paper. The pastel Goth who lives in our house and is currently vividly purple-haired likes to read when she has time, mostly YA fiction of the more lurid sort (although never sex scenes. Ew, ick, ick, there’s spit in that). They just don’t keep the paper books. And they read, prolifically, but..

“I don’t read.”

“Fan-fiction is reading, dear. How many fan-fics do you follow?”

Phone pings, she looks at her screen. She looks back at me, a little pink in the face. “That’s a new chapter!”

“See?”

The Ginja Ninja called me up the other day, all flustered. After a minute, I found out what the matter was. She had been looking at an ebook set she thought she would like to buy, was trying to figure out how to put it on her debit card, and inadvertently bought them using my information (we have a family account). I told her that was fine. When have I not been willing to buy them a book? Inwardly? I was doing a little happy dance. I have been trying to get them using my ebook library for some time now. If I can get them reading ebooks, I will have created another generation of readers. It seems my plans are proceeding.

It’s not that I think paper is dead. I don’t. Books as works of art… Sigh. POD books will never again rise to the level of some of the books that I have collected. We are relics of another age, those of use who worry about the floors caving in from weight of books. And even in our own generation, we were a peculiar lot. My First Reader talks about not being allowed to own books, as a boy. His mother read magazines, and those she hid when she wasn’t reading. And none of them read in front of his father, who would fly into a rage if he caught them. The emergence of a lifelong bookworm from that environment is a minor miracle. My reading was fostered and encouraged, like I am doing with my kids.

That’s the best we can do, for the future of books. Teach the children their worth. Not just as works of art, but as repositories of knowledge. Will my kids read for entertainment, with all the internet and movies and video games at their fingertips? Yes. Not like I did. But I had none of that. I grew up with no TV in the house – a rarity for my time. They have many options. I don’t regret that. And I don’t regret seeing them reading their online fictions that aren’t necessarily books, in the way us old fuddy-duddies think of them. I’d like to see them stretch into exploring other fiction… it seems they are, finally, doing that as well. What I’m not going to do? Force them to ‘read the classics.’

That’s the surest way to kill any enjoyment in reading. I want them to like reading. Like Pavlov’s dogs, trained to associate a bell with a treat. Open the covers of a book, and your mind whirs into gear, and it feels good. Yeah. That’s the way to give books a future.

33 Comments
  1. I have far too many books, but I don’t know how to get rid of them. I refuse to throw any book away, and I don’t know of anywhere that accepts donations of books that doesn’t expect me to pay for shipping.

    There are many that I want to keep, mostly old reference books–I have a lot of mathematics, philosophy and linguistics–but the majority of my collection is fiction and I don’t read with my eyes for enjoyment any more–my pleasure reading is virtually all by audiobook.

    I just received a box from Baen that is my prize for the Fantasy Adventure Short Story Award, but after a quick glance inside I realized that there is nothing in there I want to read. (I had asked for Tim Powers, but didn’t get any.) A big box of brand new books, and I can’t give it away.

    May 16, 2020
    • Reziac #

      This is what eBay is for….

      …or, why I can’t keep money in my Paypal account. ๐Ÿ˜›

      May 16, 2020
    • The Salvation Army accepts donations of books. So does Tuesday’s Children. However, they only accept fiction, so you’re destined to hang on to your old textbooks and reference tomes a while longer.

      May 16, 2020
      • None of the thrift stores in my area accept books any more.

        May 16, 2020
        • Many Friends of the Library will accept books to put in their sales OFF the books are sellable. Not moldy, dank, or a marked of 25 year old college textbook (unless it’s the kind you’d read anyway, like Strunk and White or reference like Gardner’s Art Thru the Ages)

          They’ll usually accept even a mix of the latter abound do the sorting for you.

          May 17, 2020
    • Our town got a recycle book room where you can put your lot and take out whatever you want. Mostly unsorted, though some shelves are labeled for non fiction, fiction, books in English and such. Once a guy gave an unhinged shriek of joy when I shelved a 6 book series and was even happier when I told him it was complete. Shelf time for those was like 10 seconds. ๐Ÿ˜€

      It also works to put a box with them outside the door with a sign that they’re for taking. I’ve always found the box empty when I returned from the day job. There must be some readers of Fantasy, and Fantasy in English and French to boot, around where I live.

      May 16, 2020
    • No used bookstores in your neck of the woods?

      May 16, 2020
      • The last one I know of when out of business a few years back.

        May 17, 2020
        • That is a problem. One thing you might do is, when you go somewhere that has used bookstores, take a few boxes of books with you.

          May 18, 2020
  2. One thing that the past four months have shown is that e-only textbook are NOT the wave of the future for a lot of students. Anything that requires a constant and reliable internet connection is bad news. Downloadable books? Different story, for those who can afford them or who have library access (which also went away for over a month, so there went that internet connection.)

    The more my students use e-textbooks and online learning, the more they revert to paper books for “fun reading.” Will it last? No idea, but “e-book” has become associated with “schoolwork-ick” for them.

    May 16, 2020
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Some textbook users need texts that won’t suddenly evaporate in ten or twenty years, and won’t get stealthily edited so all of a sudden the table says something different.

      Of course, other textbook users don’t have to worry about that, because the field changes so quickly that you need a constant turn over of texts anyway.

      I like a mix.

      Sometimes I can’t concentrate, because I’m not at my best, and I need to not have quick access to distractions and other reading material.

      Other times, I am really glad to not be physically storing all the stuff I read.

      May 16, 2020
    • My daughter reads e-books if she has to. She prefers print. I know a lot of teens who are YUUUGE readers who feel that way.

      I prefer print of anything I want to re-read because some wanker techno-crat cannot helpfully update or delete it for you.

      Also… Some reference books just work better in print, like my Field Guide to Western Birds.

      May 17, 2020
  3. Draven #

    *takes a picture of the shelf sagging under all his ‘aircraft walkaround’ books

    May 16, 2020
  4. Multiple bookshelves in every room of this two-bedroom apartment including two in the small hallway. That doesn’t count the three bookcases in my office, which while there is no fiction are still books of interest to me. If all the books we both have on Kindle were to suddenly manifest as physical objects, we’d be buried alive. I love actual books, but I also love being able to carry a couple hundred with me in a small electronic device whenever I travel.

    May 16, 2020
    • The bathroom is the only room in my flat without bookshelves. Fortunately, German houses, esp. the somewhat older ones, mostly have solid brick walls strong enough to hold heavy shelves, so I’ve set up shelves above door level in the hallway all around and another one in the lving room. Gives me some 7-8 metres extra shelf space.

      May 16, 2020
      • TRX #

        There are no bookshelves in our bathroom either… but there’s a small table with a tall stack.

        One visitor went in, closed the door, and then there was a shout of “There’s BOOKS in here!” Half an hour later my wife tapped a the door and said, “Kemp, you OK in there?…”

        May 16, 2020
        • Lol! I used to keep weird facts books, joke books, and the poems of Ogden Nash in the bathroom on a shelf. Current bath is too small.

          May 16, 2020
          • Toilets of the World is an excellent bathroom book.

            May 17, 2020
  5. Reziac #

    Being forced to read the classics, and even dissect the classics in tiresome detail (there’s symbolism in every word of The Scarlet Letter!) did not harm my desire to read; indeed, at some point I discovered that there was an interesting story here, and read to the end on my own. But it was NOT presented as recreational reading, which is a different thing entirely. It was presented as *work*, and as holding a skill to be learned, same as any other class. Note I did not say fun time. It was not fun (at least not at first) but it was useful. Seeing secondary meanings in other works became easy. Thinking critically about what something actually says or means became second nature.

    And I suspect a lot of the trick is dissect as you go; don’t send the kid off to read something they otherwise wouldn’t, then expect them to enjoy it. The goal here is not to enjoy, it is to dissect. So dissect in realtime, don’t just read and expect a regurgitation. (Or, why we all hated book reports above all other classwork… especially book reports on stuff we’d read for fun.)

    And tho I was bored in the early stages, learning to deal with boredom is also a useful skill, and what we learn while bored tends to go into permanent storage. Which is why kids who did boring rote learning have grammar forever at their fingertips, and don’t struggle to write complex sentences when later they become *gasp* writers.

    If kids only learn “fun” stuff, they miss a lot.

    May 16, 2020
    • TonyT #

      Agree.
      I’ll reiterate that a lot of classic literature (NOT modernist literary fiction) was meant to be enjoyed. Trying reading Evelyn Waugh without laughing…

      My daughter reads almost anything – except the YA at her high school library. She’s currently reading The Riddlemaster of Head.

      My son reads when he likes the book – currently he is devouring the Tripod trilogy.

      I like both e-books and e-books. For e-books I much prefer e-paper over LCDs – when I afford a large (10-13″) reader I’ll think about buying my programming books in e-book only.

      May 16, 2020
    • I think the problem is more “one size fits all.”

      Searching my memory, although that is an endeavor fraught with possible error, I don’t believe that I read a single Sherlock Holmes story until I hit high school English class. I had read “mysteries” as a genre – Encyclopedia Brown and the Bobbsey Twins. (Please don’t judge, one sister had the complete set, and what do you do after you have consumed every book of other interest you can lay your hands on – including your parent’s college texbooks?) But Doyle was not in my household.

      One of my favorite dead tree possessions more than forty years later is still the two volume complete and annotated Holmes. Well, technically it’s on the $SPOUSE$ bookshelf, she is an even bigger fan, but barring the unlikely divorce…

      OTOH, the Book of Job (same English teacher, same kind of work assignments) still gives me a headache whenever I need to poke around in it. Almost as bad as Revelations, where I’m currently doing some research.

      (Oh, on “vintage.” Double-checking my spelling, the “vintage” Bobbsey Twins books are apparently selling now for about $3.00 USD apiece. That is used, of course – but backtracking more than fifty years of inflation, that’s quite a bit less than their sales price when they were bought for my sister.)

      May 16, 2020
    • It’s not so much the being forced to do something dull part; it’s the being forced to do something dull and getting no pay out after you do the work.

      Way too many folks teaching the symbols don’t understand what they’re teaching, so they can’t really teach it.
      Just dump enough for the kids to say the right things in the right place.

      Good teaching is hard.

      May 17, 2020
  6. The fiction market probably belongs to the eBook for the foreseeable future. However, reference books and textbooks will continue to be produced on paper, as at this time they’re simply more useful that way. However, that could change with the further development of eReaders and eReading programs, particularly should they incorporate the ability to have several books open at the same time.

    The “gray zone” of non-fiction / non-reference publishing is…well…gray! I’ve purchased current-events books in hardcopy, but I’ve also bought them as eBooks. Given the transient relevance of most current-events writing, you’d think such books would do well as eBooks, but the rumblings I’ve heard from other readers suggest that it’s not that way. People seem to want physical substance in such books, possibly because their prices are high.

    What about art books and “coffee-table books?” They’re still published on paper, aren’t they? At least they turn up on the remainder tables often enough. But what fate awaits them? And what about glossy-stock periodicals? The sense I get is that the attempt to e-publish them has not gone over well, but why? They’re the most ephemeral items of the lot.

    May 16, 2020
  7. Roger Ritter #

    Whoo, boy, do I hear this. My spouse and I live in a 1900 sq. ft. suburban house with six rooms (not counting bathrooms, pantry, etc.) and each room has at least one full (even over-full) bookshelf. Thirteen bookshelves, total, just for the physical books. And then there are the e-books. I’ve got several hundred on my Kindle, and I have no idea how many on the computer. And that reminds me, it’s time once again for my weekly foray to Project Gutenberg to see what interesting stuff they’ve added lately.

    May 16, 2020
  8. Harry #

    Thirty years ago I got weird looks for reading (DTF) on public transport or while eating alone at McDonalds.
    Twenty years ago about a third of the passengers were reading Harry Potter or (I think) Twilight.
    Today, maybe one person in ten isn’t looking at something in their hand, most of which are displaying text or static pictures, not video (I don’t have any way of knowing how much of this is entertainment let alone “stories”, but expect it to be a fair proportion).

    May 16, 2020
  9. g2-cdb27520fb49967abcc1c55ca90a2fef #

    I do my fiction reading on my phone with various apps. The convenience overpowers any other consideration – having the Gutenberg.org library on a memory chip is so very nice.

    My textbooks, reference manuals and the like are hardbound books as well as on the phone, if possible. I back up my electronic gadgets, but don’t trust those backups overmuch. Books can last for hundreds of years if taken care of, my phone won’t last a decade.

    What has become superfluous (at least for me) is the paperback. I will buy hardbound books for the longevity and pleasure in reading. I will buy ebooks for the convenience and lower cost. I haven’t bought a new paperback since the ’90’s, and it’s been years since I’ve bought a used paperback. They don’t have the longevity of the hardbound or the convenience of the ebook.

    May 16, 2020
  10. Ben Yalow #

    I very much started out as a physical book reader. And have the many thousands of books and magazines to prove it.

    But I’m getting older, and planning on moving into a smaller place. And that means I either look for someplace bigger/more expensive to hold all the books and pay to move them, or I start replacing the physical books with ebooks.

    So I’ve been slowly going through the shelves, and looking at the books, and putting them into catgories: (1) I want to keep the physical object — so I do; (2) I’ll never want to reread/lend this — so I can dispose of it; (3) I might want to reread/lend it, and there’s no ebook available to buy, so I need to keep it; (4) I might want to reread/lend it and there is an ebook to buy — so buy the ebook and dispose of the physical book, which I realize means paying again for a book I already own, but I need the space more than the money, considering what it will cost me later, so it’s a good investment.

    I really wish there were fewer things in category 3. But a lot of classic SF is hard to find in book form. If the copyright lapsed, then it might be picked up by Gutenberg — but if the book is still in copyright, then they can’t get it. And publishers, in many cases, aren’t going to reprint the older works, since there’s no new works coming from the dead authors, and most of the modern readers aren’t familiar with the works enough to want to buy them.

    And, to make things worse, after watching the “success” of DRM and region restrictions that the rest of the entertainment industry had, publishers decided to emulate them. And, while it’s trivial to strip DRM from Amazon ebooks, it’s still something that many potential readers don’t know how to do. Of the major SF publishers, Baen and Tor are the only ones who publish everything DRM-free. And you’ve got region restrictions — so, for example, most of James Blish isn’t available as an ebook from Amazon, only from Amazon UK. And, while as a US reader I can buy a physical book from Amazon UK as easily as from Amazon, I can’t buy an ebook — it knows I’m coming from the US, and it can’t sell me ebooks. So if I want to buy, for example, The Seedling Stars as an ebook, Amazon doesn’t have it, and Amazon UK tells me I can’t buy it. I want to pay the publisher (and, eventually, the author’s estate) money — and they won’t let me. And I’m reluctant to lend my copy of the physical book — it’s old and worn. And the new UK physical edition is really expensive.

    So brilliant works in the field, and brilliant authors in the field, are vanishing from public view. And the field is worse for it.

    There are still good new books — I’m not claiming there aren’t. But, as a reader, the classics are wonderful books, and you can watch our tropes, and our vocabulary, develop. And seeing somebody break all the rules, and pulling it off, is wonderful.

    May 17, 2020
    • Flat State U got a huge bequest and related donations of early sci-fi and fantasy works. A lot of us were salivating, until it was announced that they were archive use only, so we had to stay in the reading room, wear gloves, use them only for academic purposes, and so on.

      On the gripping hand, taking the papers and archival materials from Arkham House and Lovecraft’s earlier publishers back to a dorm or student apartment is probably a Bad Idea. I’d hate to imagine what might conjured by someone reading Lovecraft’s margin notes aloud! ๐Ÿ˜‰

      May 17, 2020
  11. *Tries to pretend she’s not looking forward to hitting Goodwill just to turn the horde loose on the book section*

    May 17, 2020
    • One of my local used bookstores is offering ‘book bundles’ for order. I don’t know if they ship, but maybe one near you is doing similar? They have bundles for age groups. https://www.facebook.com/onedollarbookswap/

      May 17, 2020
      • Sadly, the whole appeal to the kids is that they get to snag them.

        They’ll eventually read stuff that one of the others grabbed, and stuff that I grabbed….but they get EXCITED about the stuff they chose.

        May 17, 2020
    • Draven #

      several of my local goodwill/salvation army stores didnt survive the pandemic.

      May 17, 2020

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: