Business Commentaries Community

Downtown View: Conventional Wisdom

Recently, at a City Hall hearing, a man in authority declared, authoritatively, that books, as we know them in paper format, were on their way out, and they would soon be completely replaced with electronic versions.

Silly man. Another slave to conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is just that—conventional—with no imagination or sometimes even intelligence behind it.

I wanted to say to him, “Remember the paperless office?” That was touted by futurists all over the planet. “Remember that marvel called the floppy disk?” That little plastic square was going to change our technological world.

So don’t fear, those of you who love books. You may love your Nook and take it wherever you go. But the traditional paper book is not going away.

First, there is the fallacy of the power of technology. There are people who are so smitten by this and the drama of it all, that they make daring predictions. That’s our guy at City Hall.

I’ll admit that technology is impressive. But human behavior is complicated and more nuanced than the awestruck take into account. Television did not do in either radio or the movies, as was once predicted. The paperless office did not appear. In fact, some people contend that word processing software usage generated even more paper. People simply added the convenience of a Wordperfect (remember that?) or a Microsoft Word to their tool box. And they went on doing other things the same way they always had.

The floppy disk is another advancement that now seems a flash in the pan. The disks holding the book you wrote in the 1990s are indecipherable today without elaborate and expensive conversion systems and an old working computer, if you can find one. It’s a lesson in technology’s limitations that archivists learned long ago. Even though the technology is improving, it’s still uncertain that documents and photos and other images can be preserved long term in a medium that depends on evolving machines, companies that might go out of business and the electricity to gain access to it. That’s why, for most purposes, archivists keep the paper at the same time they are digitizing their collections. The paper is the medium they can count on.

I was once an archivist for a local organization. Someone donated money to convert radio talks from eight-track tapes to cassettes. We wanted to preserve the sound of the speaker’s voice. Unfortunately the cassettes are now playable only on hard-to-find equipment.

It’s hard to preserve sound since the technologies become outdated, and one has to keep converting. Books aren’t much different. The Kindle is wonderful. You can pack one slim volume holding hundreds of books instead of the six chunky paperbacks you used to take on vacation. You can even share books on your Kindle if another person’s Kindle is on your account.

But Kindles die and get left on planes. Having access to books on your e-reader depends on that company staying in business and maintaining the format. You know how iPhones drive you crazy because every so often a new version needs a new expensive car charger because Apple has changed the configuration of the docking or charging port. Will Nook’s platform be supported if Barnes and Noble bites the dust?

That’s why, when people want a book to last, just like the archivists, they rely on paper. An aficionado of Robert Caro’s Johnson books has the hardbound copies only. I recently ordered Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland” in hardback because, with a writer of her caliber, I want the experience on a paper page. We’ll pass the book around to our whole family, even to those who are not on the same e-reader account. And I want to gaze at it on my shelf every once in awhile to remember what a good read I had. One person told me a friend of his ordered books on his Kindle to test. If he liked the book, he then ordered the hardbound book to put on his shelf.

If my theory is correct, hardbound books, especially those beautifully bound, may become more popular because readers will want them for their permanence and aesthetics, while the electronic books will eat mostly into sales of paperbacks. The aesthetics of real books mean something. As handy as my Kindle is, and as nicely designed, it doesn’t contribute to my interior decoration in the same way books do.

This was brought home last winter when our now 9-year-old grandson was living temporarily in Capetown. I asked him how he liked the apartment his family was staying in. “It’s okay,” he said, “but it isn’t very homey because their house doesn’t have any books and shells.”

Apparently, the walls of our house have made an impression on Master Hugh. His own bookshelves are filled with big books about World War II, medieval weapons, Vikings and snakes, with illustrations he is better able to study on paper than on an iPad, should he ever have one. And I got to tell a grandchild story, which every grandparent wants to do.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

2 Replies to “Downtown View: Conventional Wisdom

  1. I enjoyed your article and I do believe that hardbound books will not disappear. However, my Kindle has allowed me to enjoy more books then when I depended on paperback and hardbound copies. Also if you doubt the power of technology why does Boston only have one major bookstore(which appears to be on shaky footing).?

Comments are closed.