A few years ago, I was stood in line in a coffee shop in Scotland and one little yellow poster on their noticeboard caught my eye. In stark black letters it read ‘SAVE OUR LIBRARY’. I remember vividly reading the poster with sadness, noting the pleading tone and dramatic over-use of the word ‘desperately’. Back then it was upsetting to see, but a semi-reassuringly isolated incident. Today, however, is another matter.
These days, it seems that you can’t take a bus, a train or the tube without seeing some absentminded passenger entirely engrossed in a small rectangular piece of grey plastic. These devices are slowly infiltrating into our everyday. Once just an accessory for the pretentiously rich, Kindles, Sony Readers and Kobo’s have skyrocketed in popularity in the last five years, with Amazon reporting in 2010 that the sales of their e-books entirely shadowed the sales of their hard-backs, and then paperbacks in 2011. So, is this suggesting that the rise of the e-book is the inevitable death of the conventional paperback?
The first e-books surfaced, unbelievably, in 1971 when Project Gutenburg was first launched. Project Gutenburg aimed to transfer popular and classic books into an electronic format and to share with the world for free. The expansion and popularity of the internet allowed these books to be broadcast more widely, and eventually, the need for specific devices for reading e-books became apparent. The first e-book reader was the Softbook released in 1998, and just over a decade on there is a bountiful multitude of different electronic platforms on which to read from.
So where does that leave the great bookshops and libraries of Great Britain? The majority verdict seems to be: obsolete. It appears that within a few decades these buildings which once housed the great works will be reduced to fiction themselves, being discovered by the incredulous children of the future on their various hyper connected devices.
But are e-books really the enemy here, the sole perpetrator of the downfall of our literary heritage? Just as online shopping has not been the demise of physical shops, mp3’s are not the end of live music concerts, and Google maps is not the end of leaving the house to explore the world – I do not believe it is by any means the end. Evidently there has been some impact upon the real world from the online one, such as more frequent shops closures and online piracy against cinema media, but the effect has not been all-consuming. The reason behind all these appears to have the same running current. Nothing can truly compare to the real thing; the real feel of the clothes, the real experience of the cinema and live music, and the real smell and feel of books.
These e-books and readers may have had a negative effect on the how real books thrive, but not on if they survive. Just today, a friend of mine got a delivery from an online book store, and her first words upon opening the box, were “There’s nothing that really compares to the smell of a new book, is there?”
In the modern world, the internet is crucial for reaching a broader audience, but I believe that does not necessarily mean that society will completely sacrifice the benefits of true experience.