Are Books Obsolete? Thoughts on the Printed Word

updated May 5, 2019
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(Image credit: Ashley Poskin)

I was browsing Etsy one day, and I noticed someone selling a book that I loved as a child. It was ‘Half Magic,’ by Edward Eager, but the title of the book wasn’t anywhere in the listing. The book was being sold as a prop. ‘Vintage décor,’ the listing said. Which made me sad, but also got me thinking. Are books becoming obsolete?

When was the last time you saw a pay phone? What about a rotary phone? I have a rotary phone. It came from my grandmother’s house. It’s not connected, but every once in a while I spin the little dial and it makes that funny whirring sound and I think of her. Are books destined to become like this — charming throwbacks to a forgotten era? Already you can get the encyclopedia online, and the Bible, and you can get an e-reader and download pretty much any new book, and it is there as soon as you want it. And it is, I am told, just as good as holding a book in your hand, although probably not as nice to fall asleep with.

I see the advantages, of course, of a bookless world — instant access to anything you want to read, tons more space in your home, tons more space in your carryon where those four novels would’ve been. But I also see the world of my youth vanishing: all those summers I spent pursuing books at the public library, all the times I snuck into my parents’ room to run my fingers over their bookshelves and search for hidden treasures. But am I just a hopeless luddite? I like the sound of the rotary phone, too, and those are never coming back.

I remember the day my elementary school librarian, Ms. Domingue, taught us how to read books. Which seemed a little silly to me, at the time, like who doesn’t know how to turn a page, but I still remember her instructions: “upper right-hand corner, slide, and turn,” and I still remember the reverence with which I handled the first book I read on my own — one of Maj Lindman’s stories about a set of identical triplets, Ricka, Ticka, and the unfortunately named Dicka. I held it carefully, lifting and sliding and feeling the pleasing heft of the yellowed pages. It was like participating in some kind of sacred ritual. If books had to be handled with such care, surely the things in them were important as well.

This is my concern about our bookless future: information, and stories, are now more easy to come by than ever, but do we value them less? The internet has made information incredibly accessible, but what takes less time to obtain also takes less time to forget. It’s easy to close a tab on your browser, harder to ignore a book lingering accusingly on your nightstand.

I worry, too, that the experience of reading is made poorer. I spent my childhood in the library, immersed in the stories, but also in the feel and even the smell of books. I still think there’s something thrilling about the scent of an old library book. It smells like the promise of secrets suddenly brought to light, something forgotten about to be rediscovered.

One of my friends works in a furniture store, where they have books that they use — you guessed it — as props. She brought some home to re-cover them, and I seized upon one. It was ‘
Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,’ an account of a European tour taken by two young ladies in the 1920s. (Further research about ‘Our Hearts Were Young and Gay’ revealed that it
made into a movie.) I started reading it, and it was surprisingly funny, so I took it home and read the whole thing. I was immersed in a forgotten world, fascinated by this experience that seemed so different from mine, all because of the permanence of this particular piece of paper. But what happens to an old e-book 100 years from now? When books no longer take up space, will they just be forgotten?

The world is always changing, and we have to accept that. Maybe my future children won’t grow up loving books as I did. Maybe they’ll read the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter and whatever the Harry Potter of the future will be on a Nook 4000 or Kindle something — but will they treasure stories like I do? Will thinking of a beloved tale bring them back to a particular place and time, like it does for me? I guess we’ll find out. Until then, I’m hanging on to my books.