Of books and buggy whips

Pick up a book and hold it. Feel its heft. Look at its construction: paper, ink, glue, a protective cover. Now try and think of the book not as a familiar object but as a remarkable invention, one as startlingly wonderful as the electric light bulb or the telephone.

While light bulbs and telephones have been with us for a relatively short time, books have been in use for more than 500 years, brought about what might be thought of as the Gutenberg revolution in 1439, beginning with the design of metal movable type and the printing press. Suddenly ideas and information were disseminated across Europe and beyond on mass produced pages using oil-based ink and playing a key role in the European Renaissance. It was a towering achievement.

The book continues to be an exceptionally durable piece of technology, its longevity testimony to its adaptability and resilience. Think of how many cutting edge technologies have already morphed into something else, barely recognizable: beta max tapes, VCRs, crank phones, rotary phones, clunky wireless phones the size of cereal boxes, vinyl records and the players, the first computers... and so on.

Now look at that book. It is essentially the same text as was the Gutenberg bible, ink on paper and bound.

But a new age, some say, is upon us. Since the advent of electronic screens there has been a growing chorus of cultural pundits pointing to the demise of the book as we know it. Many are fully prepared to sound the funereal dirge, fashion eloquent elegies, and lay black garlands at the tombstone of the printed page. A new age has arrived. Hasn't it? The ebooks time has come, many insist. No more aging tomes, the pages turning yellow, gathering dust and termites, all, well, so retro looking. And no more bookstores, those warehouses of an outmoded technology that die-hard readers can't seem to let go of. Some believe that the boomers are the last generation to have a love affair with ink on paper. The next generation of bookstores will look more like Best Buy with books resembling iPhones or iPods.

In a recent article in Newsweek, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com said, "Books are the last bastion of analog. Music and video have been digital for a long time and short-form reading has been digitized, beginning with the early Web. But long-form reading really hasn't." Hence, Bezos has just released the Amazon Kindle, and electronic device that will revolutionize reading. Or so he hopes. The Kindle weighs about 10 ounces, possesses a distinct six inch screen with exceptional clarity, a font changer, can hold several shelves of books, has a battery good for 30 hours of reading between charges, and is set up with a wireless connectivity much like a cell phone. All for $300. It can also receive and store your daily newspaper, magazines and, according to Bezos, will one day allow the reader to "get any book &

not just any book in print &

on this device in less than a minute."

So what about bookstores? You know, those places you walk into with a soft Bach concerto playing in the background, filled with shelves and shelves of books, racks of magazines, tables covered with new releases, a few chairs here and there for tired bibliophiles. And the smell: as distinct as freshly ground coffee being brewed, a riot of colors, the air redolent of paper and ink, the wispy sounds of pages turning and murmured conversations breaking the silence. Are bookstores anachronistic, remnants of a time now past? Or are they so deeply embedded in our culture as to be inviolable? No need dig a moat or raise the ramparts? Will this highly effective and essentially simple technology still be with us for another 500 years? Or will the demise of books come about not because of new, cutting-edge technology but because people have stopped reading. A 2004 National Education Association study reported that 57 percent of adults read only one book (of any kind) in a year.

Ashland has three bookstores on Main Street (regrettably, the Blue Dragon is in the process of closing its doors): Bloomsbury Books, Shakespeare Books and Antiques and Tree House Books.

When discussing the Kindle and the future of books, Karen Chapman of Bloomsbury Books said, "Kids haven't quit reading. Harry Potter is proof of that. Would they have read Rowling's stories on an ebook...I'm not sure. I can't imagine myself being able to enjoy reading a book on a display screen. But I wasn't brought up in that generation. Maybe younger people won't have that problem; however, I can't imagine not having books on shelves in my home. I do know that parents still buy books for their children and are instilling the love of reading at a young age. Whether this next generations, raised with computers and iPhones and texting will carry that love on, well, we'll see."

Interestingly enough, Tree House Books, just off the plaza, presents a completely different perspective, their inventory exclusively children's books. Tree House Book's manager, Lisa Bradley, said emphatically that she could not envision parents buying ebooks for their young children. "Reading to kids is about sitting down with them, sharing an experience. There's something sweet about getting a little one ready for bed and reading a colorful story with popups and drawings and doing it together." Ebooks may be on the edge of the envelope when it comes to the information age, but ebooks with popups and large drawings and pictures that are tactile are not here yet.

At Shakespeare and Company &

a rustic store filled with vintage books, gently read books, as well as antiques &

co-owners Susan Lloyd and Judi Honor&

233; both agreed that there was something very special about books, their feel and look, that will never leave us. "It's a love affair," said Honor&

233;, "rooted in great stories and all those memories of being taken somewhere else through the pages of books. And it's multigenerational. Maybe it's that wonderful zone we drop into when we read, where we're transported out of ourselves. It's more than paper and ink. It's a personal journey, a transcendent experience. I'm not sure an ebook could ever replicate that feeling." Lloyd nodded and said, "My books on these shelves and the shelves in my house, well, they define me. I couldn't live without their physical presence. My personal books represent my life, where I've been, who I am, where I'm going. Open up the pages, see the folded corners, the pressed flowers, the coffee stains. How could an ebook ever do the same thing?"

And yet, Microsoft's Bill Hill, as quoted in Newsweek, questions the entire bookmaking process. "We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. Do you really believe that we'll be doing that in 50 years?"

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