Monkeys Reading Books

21 Apr

Last week, the Vice-President of KOBO in England was describing the growth of digital publishing.  The interview ended with a declaration that he still liked physical books but that it was a cultural thing.  He grew up with books, whereas the next generation will be used to reading things digitally and will have no such attachment.  I immediately thought of what the Canadian Minister of Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, said when questioned about his belief in evolution.  Having learned what happens to conservatives in Canada who claim man walked with the dinosaurs. Mr. Goodyear replied, of course, he believed in evolution.  He’d even seen it in action: as a chiropractor, he had witnessed the increased number of back problems caused by people walking on concrete sidewalks.  It was, he said, an adaptation to new environments that would increase with each generation.

It was so nice to see that Lamarckian evolutionary theory was still alive and well, long after its main supporter, Josef Stalin, had bit the dust.

While far from being a biological determinist, I recognize that all human behavior has an unpinning in genetics and, therefore, is subject to evolutionary forces.  Change occurs but not overnight (unless you’re a proponent of punctuated equilibrium – but that’s another story) and a couple of generations – or one – definitely qualifies as ‘overnight.’

I recall a marketing study of clothing stores that discovered that the average piece of clothing was touched seven times before someone bought it.  Makes sense to me; the first thing I do when shopping for clothes, before I even check the size or price, is feel the fabric.  If it doesn’t pass the touch test it doesn’t get a second look.  For those of you who attend SF conventions or flea markets, watch the people who are browsing.  They always look at the goods from several feet away.  I used to think it was because they didn’t want to engage with the merchants.  Now, I suspect they didn’t want to be tempted into touching the merchandise.  Chatting with a few of my fellow vendors, I discovered that if you can get someone to actually pick up a book, the chances are much greater they will buy it than if you just engage them in conversation about it.

Like all primates, we are still sensory, and especially tactile, creatures.  Most of us are happy to buy electronics – cold, impersonal and plastic – on-line which is why the box stores are in trouble.  Some of us are okay with books and clothes (though personally, I won’t buy an article of clothing on-line if it costs more than $25, no matter how good the returns policy is).  Pizza or Chinese take-out, yes, but a steak dinner? Probably not. And who in hell would order a perfume they’ve never smelled from an on-line merchant?

This brings me back to our friend at Kobo. It has been possible to read books on screens for a long time – at least 30 years in any case.  Whether on computers in the 80s or handheld devices in the 90s, the option has been there, but only a small number of early adopters took it up.  The first dedicated e-readers – like Kindle – led to a significant increase in uptake but, it seems to me, the biggest upsurge occurred once they became more ‘book-like’ with the introduction of leather cases that opened like books and most, importantly, with the adoption of touch screens, that, while nothing like turning a page, allowed us to make a tactile connection to the reader. 

It is interesting that both Kobo and Amazon (Kindle) are trying to capture the bookstore experience – Kobo by partnering with brick and mortar stores and Kindle by introducing an app that lets people go to stores to get a ‘feel’ for the book they want and then scan it with their phones, in essence, pirating the bookstore experience.

While there is no doubt that engaging digitally does impact our brains – and in all likelihood our endocrine system as well – I have my doubts it is an evolutionary change.  Humans vary as individuals; human cultures show a remarkable range of ways of interacting with the world.  But they are all ‘human’ ways – that is there is a common genetic underpinning to every culture.  Learning a new culture is difficult but not impossible.  And it’s good for us, too.  It is this discovery that we are all expressions of the same human genome that has gradually led the world to become a better place.

E-readers have come a long way and I’m sure they will continue to ‘evolve.’  Yet, it’s fascinating to me that what they are trying to evolve into is what we had all along.  E-books are here to stay, of that I have no doubt.  But, overtime, they may become ever more like the physical objects our monkey ancestry loves so much.  As for real books, I’m pretty sure they’re not going anyplace soon.  

It’s not nostalgia speaking (which, by the way, is nothing like it used to be). Another thing I observed at Ad Astra’s dealers’ room.  So many of my fellow book dealers – and publishers — were thirty years younger than me.

A million years of evolution isn’t as transitory as all that.

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