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“Is the Book Dead?”

In a talk at the El Cerrito Library, Chronicle book editor and El Cerrito resident John McMurtrie discussed the importance of books and explained why they will never disappear.

All of us who love to read books or who are involved in the writing, editing, design and manufacture of books have been watching the development of digital publishing with a mix of fear and excitement. 

We worry that the book as a physical object may disappear, replaced by a Kindle, an iPad or an ugly-named contraption like a Kobo or a Blio.

And we fear that consumers of long-form writing will simply die out, replaced by New Gen youth who will still read, thank goodness, but only if what they read is no more than one screen long. 

I’ve been watching developments, too, because I am a book publisher. So it was with special interest that I went to a talk on the evening of Thursday, May 19, by John McMurtrie, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review and an El Cerrito resident. The talk was hosted by the Friends of the El Cerrito Library—another stakeholder in the book universe—and drew a smart crowd of book mavens attracted by the evening’s topic of discussion: “Is the Book Dead?”

Just to end the suspense, the answer to this question, according to McMurtrie and certainly the audience, is a resounding no.

OK, McMurtrie didn’t exactly offer proof, just passion. He spoke passionately about libraries as places where you can “follow your whimsy,” and he reminisced about his childhood in Boston, wandering through the rooms of an old-style bookseller. And at every stage of his talk, there was a book he could allude to.

For example, on the subject of why books matter, he noted that the day, May 19, was Malcolm X’s birthday, and how Malcolm through reading was able to transform himself from a hoodlum to an agent of social change. Malcolm, McMurtrie noted, was in prison, where he had plenty of time to read, and this segued into a long segment on the French writer Montaigne, who voluntarily retired to a life of writing and reading, who enjoyed nothing more than to sit in solitude in his library and “cogitate.”

And this idea of giving yourself time to read led back to the present, and mention of the gifted writer Yiyun Li, who decided to take much of the time she was wasting on the Internet and devote it to reading big Russian novels. How wonderful to have that kind of luxurious “freedom” to read, McMurtrie remarked, which led immediately to a discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s recent bestseller Freedom, and how you can get totally immersed in a book like that and how you should also learn to get your kids totally immersed in reading too.

And so the evening went: a bit meandering, yes, but in McMurtrie’s capable hands, for every subject there was a book. And finally when it came to the future of e-books, McMurtrie referenced Pliny’s comment that “Nothing is certain” and added that Pliny should have also said, “Change is inevitable,” noting that Michio Kaku in his Physics of the Future predicted that one day digital publishing will likely be projected onto contact lenses we plug directly onto our eyes!

As another sign of the continuing vitality of the book, the audience came fully armed with questions and comments on everything from copyright, Project Gutenberg and education to the “structure of language,” author publicity tours and the curious habit of teenage girls sharing photos of their book collections with their friends. (And it became apparent that not everyone in the crowd was a Franzen fan.)

So I left encouraged. For another generation at least, there will be books. More important, there will be readers. (I was surprised to hear that McMurtrie is the sole staffer at the Book Review—surely a sign of economic hardship and not of a lack of interest in books or reading.) 

McMurtrie did confess to owning an iPod Touch and using it to listen to audiobooks and to read. For someone who has to pass judgment on hundreds of books a month at his place of work, you’d think that he might in his spare time find other ways to divert himself. But I think this is how it is with book people.

This enthusiasm, this passion to reflect on  the world through books and writing and authors’ ideas and imaginations, will no doubt remain strong, regardless of whatever happens to the book as a physical object.

After all, McMurtrie noted, the great St. Augustine’s works were originally transcribed onto scrolls, and no doubt when scrolls were replaced by newer technologies, someone bemoaned their loss.

John then drove the point home by referencing a favorite writer again: It’s not the books that matter, said Montaigne, it’s the ideas in them.

Books: A List

Here are some of the books and authors cited by John McMurtrie during his talk. Many of these are available at your local library.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Lives by the Year 2100  by Michio Kaku

The Professor: A Sentimental Education by Terry Castle

How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989–2010 by Geoff Dyer

Peter Goodman is publisher of Stone Bridge Press in Albany.

Tanya Grove May 23, 2011 at 04:26 PM
It sounds like it was an interesting lecture. I'm sorry I missed it. But, Peter, you did a good job of describing the event, so reading your article was the next best thing. I often think about the answer to the question "Is the book dead?" I, too, have decided that the answer is no; but being in the book biz means one has to remain optimistic...
Jennifer May 23, 2011 at 08:45 PM
Great article, thanks.
Kyrsten Bean June 04, 2011 at 05:24 PM
Nice article -- a topic I ponder often. The physical form of the book (as you mentioned scrolls from the past, too) will certainly change as the world changes. We live in a great new time. A love of reading goes back far in time and it's not going to go away if we all can help it. (The Book of the Dead, for one, was written on papyrus.) I love books in their physical form, but since witnessing publishing industry changes after a stint in that world and also having to schlep my cumbersome collection of worn books back and forth from apartment to apartment over time, in addition to a newfound allergy to particles of dust that love to hide out in books, I'm having to accept that the book, for me, will likely have to come in an electronic form sooner rather than later. Part of being human is accepting the inevitability of change and not getting too attached to any one outcome. On another note, nothing beats having a beautifully bound hardcover book filled with text and elegant pictures, so for my fix I've started relying on the library to house newer releases for me. My grandfather was a devout reader and had many nice hardbound books in his collection. Unfortunately time, mold and dust wreaked havoc on these books and make me question the current book "package." Is it really the best? Or could we come up with something better. Maybe something that won't corrode with time and age. Just thoughts!

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