Don’t Forget to Read

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by Hayden Hollingsworth

A happy New Year’s event will soon be upon us: The opening of the new Roanoke County Library.  One can scarcely imagine the complexities of moving tens of thousands of books, to say nothing of all the electronics involved.  There is one key thing that will be left behind:  the wonderful soft smell of old books sitting silently on the shelves.

Smell is one of the most evocative of memories and the library smell certainly is one of them.  A pot-bellied stove in the middle of a small room marked my first visits to a library and in my mind’s eye that leapt into the present every time I went into the now-closed Electric Road headquarters.  The first trip into the new facility and a deep breath might offer a whiff of the past, but not likely.

When the plans were conceived for the new structure, e-books were the stuff of the future.  Not so this holiday season.  Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and assorted other e-readers will find their way under millions of Christmas trees.  It takes a little getting used to the feel of reading from one, but they are truly miraculous devices.  The dedicated e-reader will be a relic within a few years as much more versatile devices will contain that technology, too.

It will be interesting to see how libraries handle this revolution.  Will the hardback printed book become the Victrola (a word that isn’t even in the computer dictionary) of our day?

Instead of a glitzy building, will all reading material be stored in the Cloud, whatever that is?  The idea of being able to download the latest New York Times best seller in five seconds is already a reality but at a price.  The economics of who sets the price is an ongoing struggle between publishers, electronic distributors, agents, and who knows who else.

I had assumed that libraries, which obviously have to buy the rights to the e-book, would have an unlimited supply of every book they download, but not so.  If that were true, then it would be the death knell to the publishing industry; they are already in a near-terminal state.  One copy at a time, just like a hardcover book, is what the library has told me.   And just like a “real” book, there is a two-week limit on the checkout date.  How can they enforce that, I wondered?  Very simply, it turns out.  The library computer reaches into my e-book and—poof—it’s gone.   They do give you a two day heads up it’s going to happen.  We are a long way from being able to download for free an entire library for personal use, but it’s getting there.

Amazing as it may sound, the Cloud is able to follow your progress in reading a book.  If you download to your desktop and an e-reader, they “talk” to each other.  That’s very convenient if you are reading at more than one site.  On booting up the home computer to read, there appears a note saying that you had last read to page 256 at that location, but elsewhere you are now on page 310.  Synch to the farthest page read, the machine asks?  Out there in cyberspace something knows, not only what I am reading, but where I got it, how long I can keep it, what I paid for it and, if so, how much.  Convenience at a cost; what else do they know?  A trip down that road can lead to unbridled paranoia, but let’s not go there.

Layered onto this matrix is the disturbing fact that reading is definitely on the decline.  In 2007 Alan Fram reported in The Washington Post that slightly more than 25% of adults read not a single book that year.  I’m surprised the figure wasn’t higher.  A Gallup poll in 2005 showed that the average annual number of books read per capita fell from 10 to 5 between 1999 and the survey year.  The National Endowment for the Arts reported that in 2002 43% of the adult population in this country read no book in that year.

I feel myself slipping into the curmudgeon mode which is not my intention, but I will leave readers with two thoughts.  First, a middle school teacher told me that as long as you read books you will never be alone.  And second, our wonderful new library is worth our support and we can be proud of Roanoke County for getting this done.  I will miss the aroma but trust books will not go the way of the pot-bellied stove.