In this week’s New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes about the complex class-action lawsuit being waged against Apple and five publishers for allegedly colluding to fix prices of ebooks.  To date, the DOJ has sided with the plaintiffs and three of the five publishers have settled.  It’s well recognized that the lawsuit is a sideshow in a larger battle for digital dominance among giants Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.

Auletta ends his piece with a quote by John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Books, one of the five publishers that has refused to settle.  “Books,” he says, “ are in danger of becoming roadkill in that larger war.”

Every reader of my posts (ten I believe, three of whom are my sons) knows that I love books: printed and bound, physical books.  I love to hold them, read them, collect them, make them.  I’m old school enough to believe, like Jefferson, in the idea of a personal library.  I love all books, from beautifully bound hand printed books from small presses to Penguin paperbacks.  I know this is antiquated and for sure presents a problem of shelving in my apartment.

I also have a Kindle and a Kindle app on my iPhone.  I recognize it as a legitimate and efficient source of reading material. Its content is delivered simply, conveniently and cheaply. It’s great for travel and for acquiring something to read when no bookstores are nearby and there’s no opportunity for an Amazon shipment (a source of last resort.)  But it is not a book.

I rarely read novels on my Kindle, or any book that I think has lasting value, that I’d like to pull from a shelf and read again.  I know this makes no sense since you can do the same thing with digital content, minus the shelf.  Primarily I read business books on my Kindle, books I need to read to stay current but date as quickly as stale bread.  Used book stores rarely buy business books for the same reason so there’s not even a second life opportunity.  Kindle’s crowd-sourced underlining feature is a key benefit to skimming a business book that ought to have remained a HBR article, which is usually the case.  (I guess this says as much about my attitude to business books as it does to my feelings for ebooks.)

The victims of this squeeze on traditional publishing are first novels, poetry, most non-fiction, essays and criticism—all books with limited revenue opportunity.  These books used to be funded as prestigious loss leaders.  Publishing houses can no longer afford such luxuries, just as they can no longer afford their once-upon-a-time brick and mortar bookstores.  Who remembers anymore Scribner’s beautiful store on Fifth Avenue?  It’s now a Sephora.  I wonder how long Rizzoli will be able to maintain its showpiece store on 57th Street.  Their store in San Francisco closed years ago.

This is a generational lament dating from antiquity. Early Greek dramatists bemoaned the decline of oral traditions with the advent of written documents.  Nevertheless, it’s said that Alexander the Great slept with his copy of the Iliad, annotated by his tutor Aristotle.  The world moves on in magnificent ways.

Digital content has inevitably led to digitally based education. This is clearly a boon to spreading knowledge in places where no institutions of learning exist and to those who cannot afford the opportunity to sit in classrooms once occupied by classmates Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  As someone who regards himself a liberal egalitarian, and who also laments the great dumbing down of America, I embrace digital education.  I’m thinking of enrolling in one of MIT’s online courses in physics given my interest coupled with woeful scientific knowledge.  Classroom-less language instruction has been the norm for decades, starting with tapes and CD’s.

I’m not troubled by my conflicting emotions about the decline of traditional publishing and the rise of digital.  At the end of the day, reading is reading and all reading is a good thing.  Digital formats will continue to improve.  First novels will be easier to publish.  Book reviews will be easier to access.  Books are already easier to buy. Sharing enthusiasm for a writer or book can spread like wildfire.  Specialty books will continue to be printed. The Morgan Library will continue to exist, though likely not your local public library.  This blog, after all, exists only in digital form.

Still, I’m reminded of Wordsworth’s On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic: “Men we are, and must grieve when even the shade of that which once was great has passed away.”  It’s a pathetic sentiment, I know.  That doesn’t make it any less heartfelt.  I’ve long given up the quaint idea that my sons will want my books when I’m gone and plan to sell or donate them first so they won’t have that burden with which to contend. I know they will continue to read which is the only thing that counts.

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