The book is dead; long live the book

Michael Johansen
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Once upon a time a convalescing novelist, an upbeat poet and a grumpy publisher were worried about their mutual friend, the book.

They thought their friend looked poorly. The novelist, poet and publisher had known the book for many years. They helped create the book and were with it when it rose to wealth and importance. Then they watched as the book lost everything. First the movie came to steal its stories. Radio was next to take its popularity. When television arrived it grabbed a great deal of its wealth.

After that, all the book had left was its ability to change the world.

But now the novelist, poet and publisher saw someone new: the Internet had arrived. They were afraid it would take the book’s final power. They did not know if their friend could survive the loss.

This worried them very much indeed, but not only because they loved their old friend.

In truth, the book was not just their friend, but it was also their benefactor. The book had fed them, clothed them and provided them shelter. It had helped them speak to the whole wide world and it had let the world answer back.

Alas, as the book ails, so do the book’s friends.

Although the grumpy publisher, upbeat poet and convalescing novelist were all friends to the book, they were not necessarily friends with each other.

A charming radio personality brought them together in a great big room, a room big enough to hold all the citizens of St. John’s, or at least those interested in books.

It became apparent the poet, novelist and publisher each saw their friend differently.

Not only that, they each had more than one way of seeing it themselves.

One moment the book’s a bunch of words on a bunch of papers bound between two covers. The next, it’s words on ancient rolls of papyrus hidden in jars. After that the book is a collection of words on an electronic display. Finally they all agreed: the book is everything.

The radio personality asked them a hard question: is the book dead?

Oh no! they exclaimed. Never!

But you could see doubt on their faces. The convalescing novelist showed a finely bound book to the citizens. He said it would last for many, many years.

The grumpy publisher grumbled about how much it cost to make books, any kind of book, and how little he got back, but he said he would keep on doing it.

The upbeat poet just tried to look and sound upbeat, even though he said his friend will change so much he might not recognize it in the future.

The book may have been regarding its three friends fondly, but with some pity, perhaps. The book knew how much the poet, novelist and publisher really loved it, but the book also knew their need for it might colour their fears.

There was little doubt the poet and novelist would find it harder to make a living, and that the publisher would have to struggle even more to keep going. The book was concerned for them, but not for itself. It was the poet, novelist and publisher who are in trouble, not the book.

The book is not a long roll of papyrus, or the lights of a digital reader, or even a stack of pages tied tightly together.

The book was, is now and will always be the words contained, not the container.

It matters little if the words are forgotten in a cave, transcribed in brilliant colour on parchment, printed cheaply by mechanical means, transmitted at the speed of electrons or even memorized by devoted readers. As long as those words deserve to survive, they will be read and preserved one way or another.

As long as electricity works, books will live online — changed, of course, but still able to inform, entertain, incite and challenge.

Books will endure on paper, too. Publishers may lose the mass market, but paper books are too easy to create, use and preserve to disappear overnight — or in a century.

Computers and the Internet might be killing the book industry, but the book itself will outlive us all.


Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: Labrador

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