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Is Paperback Extinction Looming? Reading and Writing in the Transition Era

If books in traditional book form die, it's not the end of the world

The world keeps changing. My eye was caught by a recent story in the New York Times:  The Dog-Eared Paperback, Newly Endangered in an E-Book Age. Julie Bosman takes a look at how shelf space for paperbacks in stores is shrinking or disappearing, and how the composition of what does make it to the shelves is changing.

It's something I've been noticing for some time. I predate the rise of giant brick and mortar bookstores - which themselves are now facing extinction - and I can remember when drug stores, grocery stores, news stands and such used to have a much bigger and more varied array of paperbacks promising entertaining reads at a modest price. While they were and are semi-disposable, that didn't mean there weren't gems among the offerings, or that they didn't serve a greater purpose in their way.

It's a seemingly inevitable consequence of the rise of e-books and so many other forms of entertainment competing for spare time and spare change. Is it going to turn out like Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi? - "Don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got till it's gone." Sorting through my own reactions to this development, I've ended up putting together some observations and tentative conclusions about the larger context here. There's a lot happening - and now's as good a time as any to take a look because it's not going to settle down any time soon. It's like living in a slow-motion avalanche. 

Take telephones. I can remember when phone numbers included letters, for the local exchange. Rotary dials, phone booths, and nothing but landlines. And you didn't own your own phone - you just rented it from Ma Bell. It was amazing to watch Captain Kirk flip open a communicator and talk to people in orbit; Spock operate a tri-corder and obtain all kinds of information. Today I walk around with a smart phone.

Radio - people freaked out when  transistor radios first appeared. You could suddenly carry music and news around in your pocket; listen to major league baseball games (back when they still played in the afternoons on weekdays.) Then FM radio showed up, stereo Hi Fi. LP records. Eight track tapes. Cassettes. The Walkman. Compact Discs. Quadraphonic sound (briefly). Laser discs. Betamax - then VHS. Quartz watches. Digital Watches.

Two, then three major TV networks. Black and White TV - then color. Comm Sats. UHF - and PBS. Then cable, satellite TV. Now digital, High Def, over the net. Jet airliners. The SST. The Jumbo Jet. Then the end of the SST. Sputnik. Vanguard. Gagarin. Mercury. Gemini, Apollo. The moon. Skylab... then it fell from the skies. The Shuttle. The Hubble Space Telescope. The I.S.S. The end of the shuttle.

Computers programmed by punch cards. Slide rules. The Apple II. the TRS-80, the Commodore C-64. The IBM PC. Handheld electronic calculators. Dial-up modems; running a BBS. The original Macintosh. Delphi. AOL. Darpanet....

 And don't even think about all the changes in popular culture in that time span.

My point is, all of the above changes didn't happen overnight or in isolation. The layout of the computer keyboard reflects the ancient mechanical typewriter - and carries over to the touch screen of the iPad. Would the iPod have taken off as quickly if the Walkman hadn't broken that trail? There were periods of transition while the old was fading and the new hadn't taken a final shape yet. The biggest, fastest, cheapest, best didn't always win out - or it did and then was itself replaced by something newer. Where we are today is a much a product of timing and synergy as it is of intent.

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