Why Neil Gaiman isn’t exactly right on why physical books will last

There is a marvelous article on brain pickings titled Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last. If you are wondering why this man is a literary genius, read the article, listen to the SoundCloud recording. His speech is amazing. He seems to live stories. Not, he seems to live for writing stories. No. Gaiman lives stories; it is as if it is the core of his being. He has an understanding of stories, of how they affect the lives of people, which very few people on Earth can grasp.

I do have one little, tiny, itty-bitty nit-pick about one of his responses. It’s about Douglas Adams explaining why physical books will last and Gaiman offering his thoughts agreeing with Adams. This is an I agree/I don’t agree scenario.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

I am positive the physical book will last forever. HOWEVER. There is a however.

Yes, ebooks are fantastic at being books and so is ink on paper, bound with glue or whatever else you can, bind paper together to create a book. The thing is, one day in the future, I won’t even guess at how long into the future, the only physical books left in the world will be like the Gutenberg Bible. They will be behind glass in a museum somewhere for future people to admire, and think how amazing it was that someone went through the hard work to print something on paper and bind it together.

Eventually the only way to read something will be in electronic format.

I don’t think that people who disagree with that statement are foolish, not at all. The people who are staunch physical book supporters, read on paper because they enjoy it. However, economies of scale and generational shifts will move the written word off paper and solely into the electronic realm.

When mobile phones first came out, most everyone thought it was so cool. You can talk and walk around wherever you want, but they also meant you were always available. There was no saying you were away from the house that’s why you couldn’t take the call. Suddenly mobile phones were not very great and would never be as ubiquitous as they are, but there was a generational shift in attitudes that leaned towards people wanting an always-there connection, thus landlines are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. Eventually, there will be no more landline phones simply because corporations will all eventually move to computer based VOIP, leaving not enough people wanting to use landlines, forcing the economies of scale to say there is no reason to continue producing them.

Now, I do love paper books. I love ebooks. I think both are fantastic.

I do believe physical books will eventually go away; when eyestrain of looking at an electronic screen is abolished and batteries change to some sort of kinetic energy storage device, or something else that makes lithium-ion batteries look like two potatoes with wires in them. When that happens, there will no longer be a compelling reason for companies to print books. Sure the physical book will hang around for a while after the eyestrain and battery problems are abolished, but only because there will be people too old to want to change or people who like to go against the grain. Eventually all those people too old to want to change their reading styles will leave this life, leaving only a tiny segment of society too small for publishing companies to cater to.

The wonderful thing about all this is I truly do believe the book will be around forever. What format that will be, if humanity is still around in a thousand years, who knows, but people will always want stories to be entertained by.

As Neil Gaiman says in the article:

But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.


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