Why we can stop talking about the future of the book | Gutenberg in the Cyberstorm | DW | 17.12.2014
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Gutenberg in the Cyberstorm

Why we can stop talking about the future of the book

How will we read in the future? Will printed books still be around 100 years from now, or will there just e-books? DW's Jochen Kürten muses on reading in the digital age, and explains why the question is superfluous.

Sure, many of us are discussing how we will read in the future. But the real question is: What will we be reading in the future? It's a matter worth contemplating. Will books cease to exist? Will e-books entirely replace their printed ancestors? Will we still browse libraries hundred years from now? Will students still peruse the shelves, scanning spines for the knowledge they're after? Will there still be neighborhood bookstores, or will the last of them have given up in the face of online retail giants like Amazon?

The most pressing question seems to be a technological one. In days to come, will we read novels only in the cold blue glow of electronic displays, on gadgets that haven't even been invented yet? The discourse has been going on for years now and with every new generation of smartphones and tablets it grows louder.

Book champions vs. tech enthusiasts

There are two camps in this debate - and each has its own answers to these questions. One side maintains that, yes, indeed, more and more people prefer to read books on e-readers. The other side argues that, in Germany at least, e-books only have a market share of about five percent and don't pose a serious threat to printed books.

Book with Kindle, Copyright: dpa

To read or not to read? Reading at all is more important than how we do it

Technology enthusiasts would argue that it's inevitable that paper books will vanish from the earth. We won't even have the natural resources to produce printed copies anymore. Books as we know them are on their way out. Even today, readers who want to flip through paper pages belong to older generations and are dying out. Younger readers hardly ever hold a printed text in their hands, and if they do, it's only to read the manual for their new smartphone.

Not so fast, insist the champions of the cultural icon that is the printed book. Dictionaries or encyclopedias might disappear from living room bookshelves, but the novel, the Holy Grail of literature, will remain immortal as a printed form of art. And yes, big chain stores like Barnes & Noble in the US might suffer in the digital age, but small, independent bookstores are thriving. And just look at all the new, up-and-coming publishers being founded.

Like I said above, these are all relevant and at times very insightful debates. They take place at book fairs, book clubs, on the feature pages of newspapers and in private homes of passionate readers. The arguments heat up sometimes, and there is a lot of speculation and future-telling.

Some facts are undeniable, though. For example that bookstore chains are in decline and online retailers like Amazon are dominating the market. It is also true that non-fiction books are increasingly sold as e-books, whereas well-crafted, traditional novels have triggered some sort of comeback of the printed volume.

Is it really all about the medium?

Jochen Kürten, Copyright: DW

Jochen Kürten enjoys a good book

I think many of those who are currently debating the changes in the book market are, when it comes down to it, not really interested in books. They don't care about content. It's much easier to go on endlessly about statistics, market shares and publishers than actually devoting time to reading, let's say, a 450-page-novel by this year's winner of the German Book Prize, Lutz Seiler. Or to discuss the new German edition of a beloved Balzac classic.

As important as the debate about how we will read in the future is, in the end it is a question of time. Reading takes up precious minutes or hours of our lives. In my mind, that is time well spent.

I don't have time to speculate endlessly about what our reading habits will look like 50 years from now. I'd rather read a good book.