As much as I respect Jeff Bezos (as you know if you follow my Twitter feed, he’s now my primary source of physical media products, and on top of that he’s now selling me hair gel and Chex), this well-intentioned comment from his recent Newsweek interview (probably tossed off at a particularly aspirational moment in a particularly breathy chat about the Future) doesn’t seem to me to correspond with reality as we all know it, unless you take an uncommonly generous view of “eventually”:
Do you think that the ink-on-paper book will eventually go away?
I do. I don’t know how long it will take. You know, we love stories and we love narrative; we love to get lost in an author’s world. That’s not going to go away; that’s going to thrive. But the physical book really has had a 500-year run. It’s probably the most successful technology ever. It’s hard to come up with things that have had a longer run. If Gutenberg were alive today, he would recognize the physical book and know how to operate it immediately. Given how much change there has been everywhere else, what’s remarkable is how stable the book has been for so long. But no technology, not even one as elegant as the book, lasts forever.
Do you still read books on paper?
Not if I can help it.
The Kindle, the Internet, all this is very nice. But around the world today there are somewhere in the range of 3 billion people (give or take a billion or so) for whom a Kindle is not even remotely in their foreseeable future. (And there are probably 50 million such people, at least, in the United States.) It seems to me that as Bezos formulates his predictions, he’s simply overlooking about half the human race. For another generation, two generations, maybe much longer and possibly forever, the book will almost certainly kick the Kindle’s ass as “preferred reading technology” for those 3 billion people.
Not to mention that there are many (many) contexts in which reading is called for but an electronic device is impractical, even here on the Lido Deck where all of us technoelitists spend our time.
Even in the most aggressive Kindle-adoption scenario I can imagine, it is virtually inconceivable to me that the printed book will somehow “go away” within my lifetime. Printing and distribution economics will change for sure, but until someone comes up with something that beats the book for durability, versatility, and simplicity of OS, it’s still going to be part of the mix, and for many, many people it will be the only part.
Note: I don’t own a Kindle (although I’ll buy one as soon as Bezos puts one on the market that isn’t an aesthetically and visually horrifying experience to use). I do, however, read books (purchased from Bezos) from my iPhone, and I’ve had some good experiences with that. Maybe the Magical Apple Tablet that’s arriving Any Day Now will square the circle for me.