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Does a Kindle have soul?



We didn't plan it this way -- at least not consciously -- but the Journal's first-ever Book Issue comes at a time of revolution in the publishing industry. Books as we know them are in jeopardy. Last month, the Association of American Publishers released a report showing that in February, sales of e-books -- digital versions downloaded to devices like Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad -- topped paperback sales for the first time.

Now, booksellers might quibble (the data was submitted voluntarily by publishers, many of which don't participate, so the results are questionable), but the trend is undeniable: Sales of e-books rose more than 200 percent in a single year. Many are now predicting that the book itself, one of the most enduring forms of technology in human history, may soon go the way of eight-tracks and LaserDiscs.

"I think the printed book is on its last legs," declared Scott Brown. The statement seemed borderline absurd given Brown's environs: He was standing behind the counter of Eureka Books, the two-story, cathedral-like antiquarian bookstore in Old Town Eureka that he co-owns with his wife, author Amy Stewart. Just a few feet away was a table display featuring signed copies of Stewart's 2009 book Wicked Plants and her just-released follow-up, Wicked Bugs. Did Brown really believe that all of this -- the shelves of leather-bound tomes, the stacks of dog-eared paperbacks, the bookstore itself -- is doomed to extinction?

"It's bad economics," he said dispassionately. Not only are digital downloads cheaper than physical books, he reasoned, the resulting decline in demand for printed editions means smaller print runs at the presses. That, in turn, raises the per-unit cost of printing each book, thereby widening the price gap.

Brown, who has taught a class on the history of books, recognizes a pattern that has held constant with each technological advance. In the 1450s Johannes Gutenberg used a movable type printing press to publish the first mass-produced book in history: the Gutenberg Bible. Critics scoffed that it was inferior to hand-printed manuscripts. But it was cheaper, and within 25 years the manuscript tradition had vanished.

In the early 19th Century wood pulp replaced rag cotton in paper production. Cotton pages were sturdier, lasting hundreds of years, but again they were more expensive; wood pulp prevailed. Later, cloth bindings replaced leather for the same reason. Then cardboard replaced cloth. "At every point, readers have chosen the cheaper option," Brown said.

Eureka Books is doing fine, he said, but that's largely because most of their business is in rare, irreplaceable books sold to outside collectors, often at a thousand bucks a pop or more. But the industry at large can't be sustained by collectors. At best, Brown predicted, used books will be reduced to a niche market like vinyl records.

Just down the street at the Booklegger, which deals in less collectible used books, co-owners Jennifer McFadden and Nancy Short were less fatalistic. They're not convinced that the Kindle is quite the biblio-assassin that Brown foresees. "A lot of people think that, but we only see people who are devoted to print books," said Short. The industry is definitely changing, McFadden allowed, but she believes the Kindle is being used mostly for titles with limited "time appeal" -- textbooks, travel books and the like. Besides, McFadden said, books have charms that simply cannot be replicated by e-books. "I just can't see curling up with my little girl with a glowing screen."

Dante DiGenova, owner of Arcata's Northtown Books, feels similarly. "It's not a format that appeals to me," he said. So far that's been true for most of his customers, too, though he said there has been an impact on certain segments of his merchandise: "Hardcover fiction is really eating it."

DiGenova and Brown have talked to each other about the digital revolution and its impact on book sales. And while DiGenova knows the new technology will make a dent -- indeed it already has -- he's loathe to accept Brown's extinction hypothesis. "I think he's wrong, and I really hope he's wrong," he said.

On one of the Booklegger's west-facing windows is this quote from Cicero: "A room without books is like a body without a soul." If you accept that premise, ask yourself this: What exactly makes books soul-like? Is it their well-worn pages, smudged with fingerprints? The look of a bookshelf filled with multi-colored spines? That oft-cited musty smell? Or is it  the ideas and stories contained within the pages -- something as ethereal as the soul itself?

Those of a religious bent believe that the soul survives the death of its corporeal form. Can the soul of books do the same?

In this issue we hear from four authors with local roots. The books they've written span an almost comically broad range of interests, from Stewart's creepy-crawlies to Ray Raphael's jaunty take on history, A Complete Idiot's Guide to the Founding Fathers. Former Journal contributor Bill Israel tells freelancer (and Northtown Books employee) Deric Mendes about teaching a college course with notorious political strategist Karl Rove. And author-illustrator Joan Dunning discusses her children's book Seabird in the Forest, which tells the story of the endangered Marbled Murrelet in words and paintings.

For whatever it's worth, two of these four books -- Stewart's and Raphael's -- are available on Kindle. (It's hard to imagine Dunning's in e-book form.) We'll set aside metaphysical questions about format and instead suggest raising a cocktail (the subject of Stewart's next book, by the way) and toasting the written word, in whatever form it takes.

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