Pondering the future of books

Posted Dec. 31, 2010, at 8:48 p.m.

When I was 13 years old my mother handed me a well-worn hardcover edition of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” and said, “Read this.”

The binding of the book was loose and some of the pages were yellowed with age, but mostly I noticed the teeny, tiny printed words and the 1,500 or so pages they filled.

It seemed like a burdensome task, but instead, that heavy old book solidified my lifelong love of reading.

When I was a younger child a large cardboard filing box sat at the end of our upstairs hallway crammed full of old comic books that had been read dozens of times by my sisters and me.

When a boring day presented itself we would tuck ourselves into the corner beneath the window, open the box and read them again.

A few years ago I picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s book “The Secret Life of Bees.” I read it with a pen and a highlighter nearby, marking passages such as this one: “The first week at August’s was a consolation, a pure relief. The world will give you that once in a while, a brief time out; the boxing bell rings and you go to your cor-ner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”

I would like to imagine that years from now one of my children or grandchildren will pick up that book, read it and feel just a little connected to me in knowing a bit how I felt when I read it by reading the words I jotted in the margins.

But I’m beginning to wonder. Chances are should they ever want to read “The Secret Life of Bees,” they will simply download it onto their e-reader and be off.

I long ago accepted the demise of vinyl records, cassette tapes, VHS tapes and even CDs. I know that e-mails have all but replaced ink-to-paper letter writing. I’m not a techno-Scrooge, but I admit I’m worried about a world without books.

Last summer Amazon reported that e-book sales had surpassed its hardcover book sales by nearly 50 percent.

Experts across the world are holding conferences on whether libraries are essential anymore.

My concern prompted me to call our local book expert, Bangor librarian Barbara McDade.

She sought to reassure me, even though she herself purchased a KOBO e-reader about six months ago.

And she loves it.

“I was hesitant at first to take it into the bathtub, for example,” she said, “but I’ve never dropped a book in the tub, and so, yes, now I take it into the bath with me.”

The library lends e-books on its website. The books are downloaded onto your e-reader, where they remain for three weeks before they are automatically returned to the library’s cyberspace archive.

McDade believes libraries and books will survive, though clearly we “are at a tipping point,” she said.

She doesn’t see an e-reader, even one with color, replacing the printed word and illustrations on the paper page of a children’s book.

“There is still something very different about seeing words and illustrations on a page, rather than on a screen,” she said.

She also believes that original, hard copies of books will always be needed to protect the integrity of the text and safeguard it against online tampering.

Librarians have always played a crucial role in shaping our literary world through word-of-mouth recommendations.

Local libraries are most often the storage facility for a community’s important and historical documents.

“That’s not going to change,” McDade said.

I know e-readers are great for a number of reasons, perhaps most important because they allow the reader to take a virtual bookcase with them anywhere, all encased in one small, tablet-size box.

I know that between 2002 and 2008, even before e-readers were marketed, book sales grew by only 1.6 percent, so perhaps the advancement of e-books could actually save the book publishing business.

But a sad day it will be in my world when the purified air of cyberspace replaces the musty smells of a used-book store and when a toddler pushes buttons on a laptop when learning to read instead of turning the pages of a picture book.

And in my little world of literature, there’s simply something missing if there is no room to write in the margins.

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