Will Paper Books Go the Way of the Silent Film? Change in the Air at BookExpo America

The other night my family and I watched on DVD "The Day After Tomorrow," a disaster thriller made in 2004 about the calamitous effects of global warming. While only six years old, the movie dated itself with its computer monitors the size of Coleman coolers. It made me wonder what commonplace item in six years will so glaringly date our time.

One answer may have come a couple weeks ago in New York City, at the annual trade show for the book industry. An industry expert, addressing the booksellers, authors and publishers unwrapping their box lunches, predicted that by 2016 digital books will account for half of all books sold.

Will someone sitting on a park bench reading a book made of paper date our time?

Flying high on apps

On my flight home from the conference, I happened to sit next to a young mother flying with her 22-month old daughter. Her little girl started to fuss as we began our initial descent, until Mom handed over her iPhone. The toddler, while sucking on her pacifier, handily swept word-image flash cards--from turtle to giraffe to duck, the latter quacking when the girl poked it.

The next day, my family and I went to dinner at an old Florida diner. The sign out front said "since 1950."As we walked to our booth, I spotted an old salt eating alone at the counter, reading on a Kindle.

Predicting the future is tricky business, even for professionals like Paul Saffo. "Good forecasts always seem wildly unlikely before the fact, and crushingly obvious after they have come to pass," warns this oft-consulted Silicon Valley sage. Paul also cautions against mistaking a clear view for a short distance. Future events unfold along an s-curve: they take forever to arrive, but when they do, they occur literally overnight.

Change was in the book-fair air, and it's hard not to admire much of it. Booth after booth was showing demos of digital books whose illustrations moved like pictures in a Hogwarts wizard manual. At one booth, the vendor showed how students could share their textbook annotations with friends on Facebook.

Amy Hertz, the editor of the book section of the Huffington Post, told me, "The evidence is that reading is up--reading on screens as well as reading in print--and that's exciting."

Yet young people who will live most of their lives in the present century will not well remember the golden age of printed books. They may only dimly recall seeing books stacked like cord wood in stores and stuffed into impossibly heavy backpacks shouldered by college students.

The writing is (still) in the book

No one today remembers what it was like to cross the Atlantic on a ship powered only by sails. You'd have to be 100 to recall the golden age of silent movies. Only through histories such as Scott Eyman's The Speed of Sound (available in both print and electronic formats) can we learn that silent movies had their own art. In some ways it was superior to the art of sound movies we know today.

Will future generations assume that books printed on paper must have been inferior to the digital books they know? Don't we assume that ancient readers must have happily given up their scrolls when shown books on pages? Don't we assume they must have applauded the boon of movable type?

At Levenger, we are designing new products for iPads and the other magic tablets to come. But we're also conspiring to make our Levenger Press books more beautiful than ever. We hope readers will want to continue to give paper books as gifts--especially if those books are compelling in content and appearance, especially if they accentuate textures and other attributes still hard to trump by digital devices.

In a recent article in the New York Times (still thrown onto our driveway), Peter Khoury mused on how charming and mysterious handwritten inscriptions in paper books can be. It's ironic that writing in books, so frowned upon by our teachers, is one way likely to preserve their value.

In our lovingly produced Levenger Press books, we'll be sure to leave room in the front for writing inscriptions to your loved ones. I invite you to join us in our little conspiracy to keep printed books lingering a while longer.

And for all you children of the 20th century now living in the 21st, how do you think you'll be reading six years hence? I'd love to hear your comments. (And because some of you are already e-reading, I'll let you in on a secret: we're currently working on adding a fifth "e" to "Levenger Press," and will soon be offering our first electronic book.)