Thursday, January 24, 2008

In Defense of Reading Books

I was surprised that Steve Jobs comments last week at Mac World about people not reading books anymore didn’t garner more reaction in blogosphere. There were only two, one from Joe Wikert, and one from David Rothman that showed up in my RSS feeds.

Fortunately, doing a search of blogs using the keywords "Steve Jobs reading books" brought up several thousand reactions. Until I did that search though, I thought that I was the only publishing person to feel angry. Now that I know I'm not alone, I feel much better. But where are my book publishing friends on this issue? Are we just going to stand by and take this crap?

Is the quiet out there in the book publishing community the result of people fearing that Steve Jobs is right about so many things that he must be right about this? Or, is it that most book people actually agree with him? I would have expected a reaction similar to that about the weapons of mass destruction that never were, but instead there was relative silence. Did his comments ring so true as to strike a sense of futility about the books future into the hearts of all who work to bring them to life?

I think that there is a much more worthwhile discussion to be had about what the word ‘book’ means in the digital age, but to write the book off as an obsolete form is about as arrogant as a person can get.

I am biased about this subject, hence my anger. But, what has surprised me so much about this situation is not Steve Job’s arrogant ideas, but our acquiescence to them. Isn’t it possible that even a superstar ‘prognosticator of hip’ can strikeout once in a while? It feels like we as an industry seem to just want to roll over and accept our obsolescence. What a bunch of wimps!

The book industry needs to change – to reinvent. Change is scary, change hurts. We need to stop worrying about creating so many titles and start worrying about how to make books relevant for a generation where kids talk on the phone, IM, connect on MySpace, listen to music, and do their homework all at the exact same moment.

To transform our industry and keep it vibrant and alive, we need to understand the very core of what makes a book (especially one of fiction) so special. Then we can take on the task of how to adapt that to technology’s new world order.

Here is a list of 10 things (in no particular order) that make books – for me - stand out as not only relevant, but necessary to society:

  1. Books invite us in.
  2. Books offer our imaginations a place to roam.
  3. Books do not judge the reader
  4. Books that are published are subject to editing and severe scrutiny before they are released.
  5. Books provide a safe haven for the reader.
  6. Books inform and educate us.
  7. Books allow us to project ourselves into the action, or stand by and watch from the sidelines.
  8. Books show us situations from a point of view that we might not have considered before and allow us to debate with ourselves.
  9. Books prepare us for real world situations.
  10. Books help shape our personal philosophies about life.

Perhaps a few of you who read this might offer up your own lists as comments to this post. If 10 people offered up 10 important traits of a book, we’d have 100. Then in the next week or so, we can start to explore how those traits can be matched to the superfast paced, multi-faceted, technology dependent, world that is here now, and will only become more complex in the future.

Perhaps, if we work together, we can regain a hold of our industry’s destiny and continue to educate, entertain, expand, and enlighten the minds of our society.


Lori Cates Hand said...

OK, here are a few more:

Books offer a sense of accomplishment to the reader who finishes them.

Books start public dialogues on important topics.

Books are a concrete and thoughtful gift.

Books are status symbols for their authors.

Jeremy C said...

I, too, work in the publishing industry, but I am not upset with Steve Jobs. If you look a little more closely at the situation, you'll see why.

Perhaps people weren't quite as upset as you because they didn't misread what Jobs said. The quote is this: "'It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,' he said. 'Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.'"

I don't know where he got this statistic, but the recent NEA study of reading paints a similarly dire picture, so it's not like he just pulled it out of thin air.

But if you read the quote carefully, he is obviously contradicting himself, which is the first important to note. If forty percent read one book or less, that means sixty percent read two or more books, so people still do read books. Plus, people read much more today than they have in the past; think of blogs, e-mail, Web sites, etc., not just books.

But perhaps more important is knowing a bit of Jobs/Apple history with comments like this. Jobs has made similar previous comments like "people don't want video on their iPods" and "we aren't making a cell phone." So what this statement possibly means is that Jobs thinks Amazon misfired with the Kindle and Apple is working on their own solution. Apple is notorious for making contradictory statements like this only to reveal such a product at a later date. It's part of their strategy in getting people to think about those sorts of things.

So more than anything, I find the quote amusing and a bit tongue-in-cheek. If anything, the vehement reactions by publishers show how far behind the times publishing is and how little they understand how much things are changing and how they should adapt.

Fran Toolan said...


thanks for your additions

Fran Toolan said...


Thanks for your well thought out comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to enter the dialog.

I buy into your arguement that we shouldn't listen to him because he's made these kinds of statements before to some extent, but not completely.

I don't even care that his negativity was aimed at e-reading devices and specifically the kindle.

What I find arrogant and irresponsible is that this man, due to his success, obvious talent, and well deserved adoration, has the power to make concepts real, even if they are misguided.

I think that you are in the minority of people smart enough to see through the comments. My belief is that most people will take them at face value.

I completely agree that publishers need to adapt to new realities. I was hoping my post might act as sort of a call to arms.

our industry is under seige on many fronts, and its time a few of us stood up and did something other than wringing our hands.

Jana said...

I agree with what you are saying, Fran. I wasn't angry after reading what Steve Jobs said because I'm used to hearing doom and gloom predictions for print books and book publishing. Also, I don't especially trust his opinion on this matter.

Whenever I hear "books are dead" I have a hard time believing it--after all, I still read (and buy) as many books as I ever did. Although, some of them are ebooks. :)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

BOOKS!! Where does one begin? My house is scattered with books..I am an avid reader and so offer up my experiences with books that an e-version could never replace..

Walking into a bookstore is a religion to me. The smell of new books calms me into submission. I have no defense as I observe the hushed words of the bookseller as he speaks to a buyer about a particular book like a priest in a connfessional. I gaze in awe at the vast wall of books before me.
Which title lures me to pull the volume off the shelf. How do I peruse the pages without breaking the spine? How many others have opened this very book? Am I the first? As I gently open the book the smell of the new pages wafes it's way up to my nose, how intoxicating. I scan the pages reading little bits here and there, and then, looking around I gently close the cover. Turning this self revelation of another over I look on the back and gaze into the eyes of it's author. Will we have a connection? Will he unknowingly become a part of my life forever? I hold the book to my chest and make my way to the bookseller. With eager anticipation I hand over my coin and make my way out the door. Once home I take my seat by the lamp and allow myself to make the tome mine. I open "the book" and place my fingerprints firmly upon each page, making it mine, as I read each word finding what the author has given to me and only me. His thoughts, dreams, desires, sorrow, happiness and love. When the final page is near I feel a sense of sorrow for our time together is coming to an end. I read and re-read the final paragraph the final words seeing a new meaning to the world as shown to me through his eyes, the author of this book. I run my hands over the closed book, lay my head back and close my eyes, reflecting on all that has gone before, the words that inspired the images, the play within the theater of my mind. And once satified with thought and form I rise and place, with love and connection, this book upon the shelf. This book will sit with regal pride on the shelf with the others who have become a part of this life, my life, for all who enter this dwelling to see.

This you cannot do with electronics!!!