Out of Print — What’s happening to books?

ImageWe’re liv­ing through a slow-motion earth­quake in the world of books. The mas­sive shift from print­ed books to e-books and oth­er dig­i­tal for­mats may be as momen­tous as the arrival of the print­ing press five hun­dred years ago. This is one of those big changes that, even though it’s affect­ing our lives pro­found­ly, is hard to talk about—maybe in part because it’s so new. As Lev Gross­man said in a 2011 arti­cle, “if any­thing we may be low­balling the weird­ness of it all.”

A new doc­u­men­tary by Vivi­enne Roumani, Out of Print, aims to get us talk­ing about this phe­nom­e­non. How many of us still read print­ed books, or any long-form books at all? What is the effect of the e-book rev­o­lu­tion, and the broad­er, inter­net-induced change in our read­ing habits: on pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies, on writ­ers, on libraries? What about chil­dren and teenagers com­ing to read­ing now—how will it affect how they learn, even how they think?

The film, nar­rat­ed by Meryl Streep, is on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, and will be shown this Sat­ur­day, July 20, in New Hope as part of the New Hope Film Fes­ti­val. Roumani gets a kind of vir­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion start­ed through inter­views with an impres­sive array of experts. In one cor­ner, there’s a sur­pris­ing­ly elo­quent Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon—the big goril­la of both e-book and print book sales—who speaks with pas­sion about the book as an ele­gant object, and about how read­ing a nov­el can trans­port you to an alter­nate world. In the oth­er cor­ner, there’s Scott Tur­ow, who as pres­i­dent of the Authors Guild acts as a kind of pit bull for writ­ers, argu­ing for their right to earn mon­ey from their work against ini­tia­tives like Google’s con­tro­ver­sial plan to dig­i­tize thou­sands of books.

And then there’s the late, great Ray Brad­bury, speak­ing about his dis­cov­ery of read­ing at his local library in Waukegan. In the base­ment of that library, he banged out the first draft of Fahren­heit 451, the book that pre­scient­ly imag­ined a future where most peo­ple live with immer­sive enter­tain­ment screens, and where books are in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing in a dif­fer­ent way. Is our new world as strange as that, or stranger? This ele­gant and thought­ful film opens a door on that ques­tion too.

Out of Print will be shown Sat­ur­day, July 20, 7 p.m. at the New Hope Arts Cen­ter, 2 Stock­ton Ave. @ Bridge Street, New Hope, PA 18938, as part of the New Hope Film Fes­ti­val

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7 thoughts on “Out of Print — What’s happening to books?”

  1. Hi, Miri­am — I tried post­ing a com­ment, but couldn’t for some rea­son…

    Thanks for post­ing this, Miri­am. Sounds like a good doc­u­men­tary and I hope to catch it (though I can’t make it to New Hope on Sat­ur­day). I’m still a print­ed-book read­er. Ebooks look real­ly cool, but I work on a com­put­er all day, and for my plea­sure read­ing I enjoy the feel of a print­ed book in my hands. Still, if ebooks encour­age peo­ple to read, more epow­er to ‘em!

  2. Miri­am, I guess I’m in the “what­ev­er gets peo­ple to read” camp, includ­ing audio books, which seem to be a sleep­er cat­e­go­ry. I just wish the trends were more prof­itable for authors. As a read­er, I’m think back and must con­fess I haven’t read a phys­i­cal book cov­er-to-cov­er in over a year. Worse, with a few excep­tions, the books I bought and read were most­ly from Ama­zon, which doesn’t seem to care about mak­ing mon­ey for any­one but Ama­zon.

    As a writer, I’m doing fine myself, but not in the fic­tion are­na. When it comes to seri­ous lit­er­a­ture, seems to me like it’s hard­er than ever for real­ly tal­ent­ed pros to make a liv­ing. 🙁 J.K. Rowl­ing is a great exam­ple here. She pub­lished a mys­tery (I think) under a pseu­do­nym, and it was actu­al­ly very well received. Trou­ble is, it sold some­thing like 1,500 titles until she spilled the beans about her author­ship. So the world’s rich­est writer can’t make a liv­ing from her craft alone these days. 🙁

    1. Arthur, yes, Jef­frey Toobin says some­thing like that in the film: ‘I don’t care how peo­ple read, I care that they read.’ I don’t want to get stuck in nos­tal­gia for print (there should be a word for that, right?). It’s more that I want to see the out­lines of this big thing that’s hap­pen­ing more clear­ly. Re Ama­zon, I heard Ursu­la Le Guin tell a group of writ­ers to buy books from Pow­ells, the Port­land OR book­store that now has a big web pres­ence, rather than Ama­zon, but of course it’s best to patron­ize your local book­seller, if it exists.

      1. Wish my local book­seller was still in busi­ness! The late, great Chester Coun­ty Books is said to be stag­ing a come­back as a small­er store, and I wish them luck. Haven’t seen the new store open. Maybe it’s wish­ful think­ing. On the pos­i­tive side, I think there’s room for a book­store with a small inven­to­ry of hot, New Times Book Review type titles, where you can browse and then buy ebooks. Of course, they’d have to offer some­thing MORE than Ama­zon does, like no copy pro­tec­tion in exchange for a high­er price. Per­haps what I’m describ­ing is a library more than a book­store, or maybe it’s some­thing in between. But I do think peo­ple miss brows­ing in book­stores, and there might be a way to cater to this need prof­itably. Maybe they could share rental expens­es with a com­pat­i­ble out­fit like Counter Cul­ture Cof­fee?

  3. P. S. Brad­bury vision of big screens show­ing inane pseu­do fam­i­lies was sure­ly prophet­ic! I think of it when­ev­er a new sea­son of (name the real­i­ty series) snags media atten­tion.

  4. Hi Miri­am, Thanks for the info. I won’t be there because am in N.S., but the film does sound inter­est­ing.

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