If you're old enough, you've no doubt watched once commonplace items become all but extinct, as the steamroller of "progress" caused them to be usurped by the latest. greatest innovation. It's as if a tidal wave descended over night and washed away the past, leaving in its wake a shiny new imposter that claimed to be an improvement over its predecessor.
I witnessed this with vinyl records. True, records were bulky. They required large covers that were often adorned by images produced through expensive offset color printing. They could only be listened to on a "record player" or home based stereo system, that was at the very least as big as a suit case. These facts certainly contributed to a pivotal experience I had one day when I walked into "Tower Records", seeking an LP, (Long Play, as they were called), and they had all disappeared. The rows and rows of bins that once housed records had been replaced by racks with tiny cassette tapes.
Why? Cassette tape players were portable. They were showing up in automobile stereo systems and a new phenomenon called "boom boxes". They were made of hard plastic and housed in a durable case which employed yet more plastic. The art work was reduced to the size of a card which could be inserted into the case.
But there was a problem: The tape itself, inside the cassette was fragile. It often would become entangled inside the mechanisms of the players and require lots of time and patience to unravel. Half the time, the tape would break anyway and the entire cassette would have to be thrown away. It wasn't long after this that tapes were replaced by CDs (Compact Disks). And now of course, most of our music comes to us through downloads and streaming services. But lo and behold, records are making a come back. It turns out that records had a lot more of what was called "fidelity". Variously defined as a dynamic richness; a clear definition of bass, midrange and treble frequencies. Now, records are bought online and treated as a novelty: Gifted, collected and traded by so called 'Millennials" who never had the experience of walking into a "record store" and seeing bins stretching the length of a football field and being picked through by music lovers from every stripe of society. Bikers, hippies, executives in suits, old folks looking for that special Sinatra album and teenage girls giggling at the site of their favorite crush or boy band.
The pace of change we have witnessed in the last 20 years has been incredible, but for so called "Baby Boomers" was exponential. Many of the former hippies and potheads from the 60's and 70's traded in their pipes for PCs and began a revolution that resulted a wave of innovation that transformed almost every aspect for modern life. And there was rarely any choice in the matter. For a while, you could continue to watch movies on VCR tapes for an example, but you'd soon have to abandon that technology for DVD's and a new device to play them. Not only did the shape and function of many products change, also, the cost of production went down due to the use of ubiquitous plastics.
Across the globe, quality material items began disappearing all together, or were replaced by mass produced, digitally enhanced, injection molded or robotically engineered versions. As a society, we should stand up and take notice, but we rarely do. We buy into the hype from "Madison Avenue" and signal our approval by opening our wallets. And the changes that came to design, computation, record keeping, communication and home entertainment, eventually transformed the venerable book as well
The march of technology made it possible to strip the traditional book of all its material leaving only virtual words, which could be expressed as ones and zeros on a computer chip. Entire libraries could be scanned and stored in such a way, then retrieved at will by a keystroke.
What is Lost in the Midst of These Changes?
I can remember a room in my grandparent's home that was filled with books. I would spend hours perusing their personal library, discovering all sorts of interesting images and and ideas. Later, when they had passed, I acquired some of these books, along with boxes of hand-written letters addressed to family members, friends and clergy. Each one revealed a new layer of understanding about my beloved elders. These material items often last for centuries. They may be lost and rediscovered or passed down through the generations to reveal a connection to or a trait in common with an individual not unlike ourselves, who occupied a misty past.
It is not anachronistic to maintain that there is room and
indeed a need for both digital and printed books to exist.
Digital files on the other hand are like vapor. They can be destroyed by a keystroke, or remain on the hard drive of a computer that resides at the bottom of a landfill. And they cannot be reanimated without the assistance of the appropriate device and compatible version of software, not to mention, a power supply. They show no age and therefore, retain no sentimental value, (which can be understood as the total sum of all the hands that have touched it and all the eyes that have seen it). They have no scent or heft, they don't register on the frequency of our senses. They are "virtual". Meaning, almost imaginary, fleeting and ephemeral. And yet, our diminishing attention spans and growing penchant for immediate gratification has allowed this silent revolution to take hold.
Though it may seem an extreme position, I see the digitization of everything as akin to the spreading of a virus. A digital code is not unlike a virus: a strand of information, which, when used indiscriminately, has the power to disrupt or destroy any system it inhabits. And while our digital revolution has certainly ushered in an era of rapid communication and computation, with clear advantages for medicine, science, finance and education, it also threatens to destroy the very fabric upon which our human experience is recorded. Therefore, I believe that it is not anachronistic to maintain there is a room and indeed a need for both digital and printed books to exist. And as a culture, if we don't arrive to that conclusion soon, it may be too late.
The final generation that bought, coveted and collected printed books are reaching their golden years and passing on. Their precious libraries are either thrown away by family members clearing out the old homestead or set out on the curb for Salvation Army to recycle for pennies a ton. It is time we act to keep these disappearing treasures from falling into the abyss of history.
Printed (physical) books are on the endangered species list. The once large chains like Borders and Crown Books, which carried thousands of titles are gone. Barnes and Noble has managed to hang on for now, due in part to the fact that they have no real competition in the brick and mortar sector of the economy. For small, independent bookstores however, the future is even more bleak. Many continue to reduce their inventory through fire sales and close their doors for good. And when a small town loses its bookstore, many feel it loses its intellectual center.
We at Enlightened Paths spend hours searching for and contemplating the fate of these fine works of art and literature. We recognize the significance of books and printed materials as an anchor that helps us maintain an intellectual and emotional integration with our past, when the winds of change threaten to blow us off course. Their sight, scent and tangibility along with the projection of their author's deepest sentiments, make them among the most engaging creations humanity has ever produced.
Help us keep printed books in the mainstream.
We maintain a growing and evolving collection of the finest books available anywhere at our Online Store. When we acquire them, they're cleaned, preserved and priced to make them accessible to any book lover or collector.
Please tell us and others how you may have been influenced either positively or negatively by this article. We'd love to know if you also feel it's time to reconsider the intrinsic value of real books.
Thanks for reading
Visit our store today.