This may sound like an odd observation to make one day after the area’s biggest bookseller announced its liquidation, but the book is not dead.

When someone has something important to say, especially if they want to get paid for saying it, they write a book. This is not just true of my pointy-headed friends on the left, but also for the less pointy folks on the right.

People like books. They buy them and read them. I was lucky enough to spend some time on a Maine beach last week and it was obvious.

Except for the people building sand castles or rolling bocce balls, the young and old were lying out on folding chairs, reading. While I’d like to report that they had copies of The Portland Press Herald stretched out before their faces, that was not the case. They were reading books, and not e-books either, but old-fashioned paper and cardboard books that we keep hearing are “old media” and are on the way out.

It makes sense. Books are cheap, about the cost of a couple of movie tickets, and provide hours of entertainment. They are convenient. Just drop one in a beach bag and you are ready to go. They still work if you get sand in them or even if they get a little wet. Try that with a Kindle.

But if that isn’t scientific enough for you, consider the observations of Robert Darnton, a professor and librarian at Harvard University, who in an essay published in the April edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education said that most of what we know about the information age is bogus. The book is dead? Wrong, says Darnton.

More books are printed each year than the previous year. One million new titles will appear worldwide in 2011, and the book business is booming in the developing world.

It’s true that technology is changing, but that has happened before. Gutenberg changed the world of publishing with the invention of the movable-type printing press in 1439, but that didn’t kill manuscript publishing. According to Darnton, it expanded after Gutenberg and continued to thrive for three more centuries.

The other idea that Darnton challenges is the notion that everything is available online, which any reporter or researcher could tell you is not the case.

“Only a tiny fraction of archival material has ever been read, much less digitized,” he writes. “Most judicial decisions and legislation, both state and federal, have never appeared on the Web. The vast output of regulations and reports by public bodies remains largely inaccessible to the citizens it affects. Google estimates that 129,864,880 different books exist in the world, and it claims to have digitized 15 million of them – or about 12 percent.”

With a million new titles coming out every year, it is going to be a long time before even the people in Silicon Valley catch up.

Darnton’s point is not that our digital future is myth: You don’t have to look very far to see people using smartphones, in effect carrying an office and movie theater around in their hip pockets, to know things have changed.

But the break is not as clean as the gadget manufacturers would have you believe.

We are going through a period where many different kinds of information technology will exist side by side, and we will be lucky enough to decide which ones work best for us. Sometimes, it’s going to be something as old-fashioned as a book.

I’m sorry to see Borders go, mainly because I feel bad for the employees and their families, who will be going through a period of uncertainty that’s not their fault. According to news accounts, the Maine stores were successful businesses that were dragged down by poor decision-making at the corporate level.

But just because one model of bookseller failed – and the mega-bookstore is a fairly recent phenomenon – we shouldn’t make assumptions about how fast information technology is moving or in what direction.

Online booksellers are thriving, and the small independent bookstores still have a place. If they know their customers and select wisely, small bookstores can provide a valuable service to readers who are bombarded with too much information and want someone with good judgment to narrow the choices.

The Blackberry smartphone was introduced in 2003. The Kindle e-reader showed up in 2007. The iPad tablet computer appeared in 2010. Who knows what technology we will be using 10 years from now to create and share information?

But whatever it is, we can be pretty sure that someone will write a book about it.


Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or: [email protected]