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. 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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