Sunday, June 14, 2015

A future without books. A nightmare or an inevitable fate?

     In November, 2014, a mystery began to plague residents and visitors of Boulder County, Colorado. Drivers on a lonely stretch of Highway 287 between the cities of Lafayette and Longmont began to notice books scattered all over the highway. The books were on the North and Southbound lanes, as well as the side of the road. The books made their unexplainable appearance quite frequently for several months. The mystery was so baffling that it gained television news coverage. One driver even speculated that the responsible party was perhaps trying to send some sort of message that could be decoded via the titles of the books. That would actually be pretty awesome, aside from the inherent dangers of books being all over the highway and the fact that this is littering in the extreme. Sadly, the true reason behind the books' appearance is a much more despairing tale.
     In April, 2015, a state trooper finally caught the 62 year-old man responsible. He admitted to throwing the books out his truck window on his way to work almost every morning. He claimed he had no idea the books were getting scattered across the highway. He'd assumed they'd landed in a ditch.
     He purchased the books at a used bookstore's going out of business sale several years ago. At first he sold them on Amazon, but could no longer compete with Amazon's pricing. He was left with hundreds of books and nothing to do with them. No library or used bookstore would take them. He didn't see any other choice, so he gradually dumped the books out the window.  (For more on this story, see link at bottom of post.)
     This story makes me very sad. Not the part about the littering, or how the highway was made dangerous for drivers. Sure, those things are bad, but for me the sad part is that the guy truly had no idea what to do with all his books. Books are wonderful amazing things. I don't know what I would do without them. They are thoughts, feelings, whole new worlds, friends when we have nowhere else to turn…books create escapes, provide entertainment, teach us things, cure our boredom, give us hope, make us fall in love… To think that printed books are becoming so abundant that there is nothing to do with them is absolutely devastating.

     I recently began watching the new season of Orange is the New Black. **WARNING** Extremely minor spoiler alert. By minor I mean, yes, I am going to state something that occurred in the show, so technically it is a spoiler. However, what I'm giving away is a very minor plot point and should not actually ruin your enjoyment of the show. But I felt I should still give a warning. Spoiler is from episode 2 of season 3 and will last two paragraphs.

     The women's correctional facility that is the setting of the show became infested with bed bugs. Much to the disappointment of the characters, bed bugs (or possibly muffin crumbs) were found in the pages of a book. They had no choice but to burn all of the books, knowing that they would likely never have the funding to replace them.
     It later occurred to me that lack of reading material in prisons is probably a real issue. Although the story of the man who threw his books all over the highway is extreme, his problem is becoming more and more prevalant. As online subscription services like Kindle Unlimited and Oyster take over, more and more used book stores and even libraries are forced to close their doors. As fewer and fewer used bookstores exist, there are fewer places to donate books to. It seems that people may not be thinking about all their options. Maybe donating books to prisons is a good idea. It is at least worth a shot before resorting to throwing books away, be it in a garbage can or on the highway.

*******************END OF SPOILER. *********************

     This set me thinking even further. Currently, over-abundance of printed material is an issue, but for how long will this continue to be an issue? More and more people are purchasing e-readers and opting to purchase and read books electronically. Many self-published authors don't even have print versions of their books, or they simply use print-on-demand services, which means a printed copy is only made after it is ordered.
     I initially hated the concept of e-readers, mainly for two reasons. One, it is much riskier to take your e-reader into the hot tub or bathtub. Two, it is much riskier to throw your e-reader across the room when the ending of a book destroys you. (Oh come on, don't tell me you've never thrown a book across the room because you hated the ending.) But even I have begun to love the convenience of the e-reader.
     First, there is instant gratification. In this day and age, society is all about instant gratification. Because of the internet, we no longer possess the patience we once did. Secondly, it is extremely convenient to have all your books in one place. Now, instead of carrying one book with you, you can carry one hundred books. Plus, e-books mean that you no longer have to worry about where to put the many, many books you own.
     The trend towards e-publishing will only continue. What does this mean for the future? More and more books will be electronic only. Even books that are still being printed will have fewer hard copies. This is great. For now. Everything runs on electronics. But what happens if this changes? I'm not talking about the near future. I'm thinking fifty to one hundred years from now. What if something happens and all this information we have stored in virtual space is gone? I'm not a tech person, so I have no idea if this is possible. I am however, a writer of urban fantasy. Therefore, my brain immediately goes to post-apocalyptic terms.
     So, if one day in the future, we lose access to the internet, what happens to all the books written in this decade and the decades to come? Will they just simply cease to exist? That would be tragic. Think about it. There are tons of copies of twentieth century and earlier literature. At least our descendants will have access to the wonderful literature of the past. But what about twenty-first century literature? What if those books simply get lost in space? Scary.
     I realize that this is extreme, but I feel as though it could happen somewhere down the line. While I do enjoy the convenience of e-books, there will always be something special about a printed book. I personally love the way books smell. E-readers don't have the right smell. In the future, I'm going to try to tame some of my needs for instant gratification and purchase more hard copy books. Maybe you should too.
     As always, comments, opinions different than mine, and shares are welcome.
     Here is a link to the article about the man dumping books on the highway: