The Death of Print Books?

by James Preston

Let’s talk for a minute, you and I, and then raise a glass to absent comrades the printed word, at least on paper.

Books are a visceral and sensory memory for many of us. A physical book has connections not only to the words but also to where you bought it, when you first read it, and maybe what you were eating at the time.

In this essay I’ll use a few personal examples to illustrate the differences between e-books and print, and then I’ll examine that popular concept — physical books are dying — to see how it stacks up against the facts. At the end we’ll raise a glass and salute our absent comrades, the books we love that have gone away.

Progress and Change

In 1450, Gutenberg’s printing press began a revolution. Books became cheap — relative to hand-inscribed works of art that were chained to tables — and the world changed. In 1455 Gutenberg printed his masterpiece, the 42-line Bible, and the world hasn’t been the same since. 

Now we’re in the midst of another revolutionary change to the “book mindset.” Yeah, you guessed it, the internet. Common knowledge, right? When was the last time you pulled up a chair and opened a heavy volume filled with beautiful penmanship? But they’re not gone, they’re just under lock and key, just like in the 1400’s.

Is Print Dead?

I grew up with books. They were then and are now my friends. My guess is they are yours, too. They were the package that delivered tales of romance and adventure to you and to me. I treasure them, not just the stories they contain but also the physical package, the binding, the pages, the mayonnaise thumbprint left when I read The Hardy Boys: Tower Treasure while eating a baloney sandwich. Hey, I was eight years old. Cut me some slack.

Everybody knows books are being killed by electronic villains – or heroes, depending on where you stand and when you were born. 

Let’s talk about that.

My Personal Book Journey

The Tower Treasure, The Secret of the Old Mill, Space Cadet and others like them are my friends, and they are going away. It’s common knowledge that we are in the twilight of the book era.

Or are we?

Once upon a time I was in the middle of getting a Masters in Library and Information Science at USC. (Yes, I’m a book nerd.) I wanted to write an essay called “Moby Dick is Melting.” The idea was that Moby Dick used to be a book; you could pick it up carry it around. Now it’s ones and zeros on a disc, or a voice on a tape, so what is it?

I was never able to make the essay work, in part because e-books hadn’t really arrived and also because the answer is simple. This is a quiz. Just what is Moby Dick? We’ll come back to the answer to the quiz later. Be prepared to show your work.

Look at The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure. That’s the copy I got when I was, eight so it’s had kind of a tough life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Every time I look at it, I remember sitting on the floor in front of the wall heater, with my dachshund next to me, as the heroes, Frank and Joe, solve their first case.

Then I discovered Robert A. Heinlein in the Fullerton Public Library. One of my favorites was Have Space Suit — Will Travel.

Wow! Characterization! A new world opened. And it was free! I checked out the book and took it home. Then my grandmother gave me my own copy, the one you see here, that I still own.

An Elegy to Physical Books

Physical books have that sensory connection I mentioned before. You can touch them, smell them, carry them.

Physical books also have covers, and when you’re a kid they can get you in trouble. Check out Murderer’s Row by Donald Hamilton, with the lady wading out of the water in a dress with one spaghetti strap slipping down.

This was a book I had to fight for. I bought it at the R&B drugstore on Main Street in El Segundo when I was in High School, probably in early 1963.

The conversation at the cash register went like this: “Oh, you don’t want that.” The man behind the counter gently pushed the book aside.

“Sure I do. This is by Donald Hamilton and he’s a really good writer and I like him as much as Ian Fleming and . . .“ And on and on.

I think the clerk was simply worn down by my monologue. I didn’t have words like characterization and pacing in my vocabulary then, but I knew that the book was excellent, perhaps as good as some of Ian Fleming’s James Bonds.

Soon his eyes glazed over (sometimes I do that to people; I have no idea why) and he sold me the book.

That exchange would not happen with an e-book. Tap Download and there it is.

And here’s Red Dragon. I remember where and how I bought it. We were camping in San Diego and walking through town with my friends. I saw it on the revolving rack in a drugstore window as we went by. It grabbed me.

I went in and bought it and discovered Thomas Harris.I don‘t thnk an e-book will ever have a chance to do that.

Finally, we have this battered volume of Murder for Pleasure. It found its way to a used bookstore in Ventura California where I discovered it when I was book hunting with my father.

He collected westerns; I looked for mystery or science fiction and we always had a great time prowling through the dusty shelves. Look at it! Can you imagine the stories this beat-up volume could tell? USS Sitkoh Bay, Air Force library at Vandenberg AFB, eventually a discard and then a used book store. I sometimes look at it and wonder. And I remember that time with my father.

An e-book is both permanent and impermanent. It will not have a history like that. I believe physical books provide different kinds of connections with the reader that e-books just can’t.

Do we need to raise a glass, or hold a wake, for print books? Not yet.

Book Sales by the Numbers

So — is print dead?

Nope. The numbers simply do not support the death of books. There are multiple sources on the Internet.

Print book sales in 2019 and 2020:

     2019 — 130,541
     2020 — 138,421 (Up 6.0%)

~ from PublishersWeekly.com

Newspapers and magazines are, of course, a different story, but our friend, the printed book, is still alive.

Answer to the Quiz

Oh, yeah, the quiz – our question about Moby Dick. Despite being stabbed repeatedly by Ahab, the big blubbery guy is alive and well, because the answer is Moby Dick is a story. The rest is packaging.

We’ve looked at a few of the differences between a sometimes tattered and dusty book-book and a sleek, invulnerable e-book. I could do a mirror-image of this essay and point out how great it is to be able to add notes to e-books, and how you can look up terms effortlessly.

And how you will never find a mayonnaise thumbprint.

But that’s another essay.

So, if you love books, I bring you a message of hope. Physical books are not going away soon. And as for story, why, it will be with us always. So raise a glass, my friends, to books, to the people who create them, and most of all to the readers who treasure them.

Now, let’s hear from you.  Do you have a favorite book story? Maybe from when you were growing up? Anybody read Nancy Drew? J. K. Rowling? Anybody sneak a copy of Valley of the Dolls in and hide it under their bed? Or run into a clerk who tried to talk you out of a particularly tacky cover? Please share those stories with us because we have similar experiences!

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About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.”

His webpage is w

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