Thursday, February 4, 2010

Counting the Opportunity Cost

My family hasn't had a proper vacation in years, so earlier this week we packed up the car and drove to Savannah. It's only seven-or-so hours north, but an entire world away in terms of history. South Florida is a place of constant development, where roads are always being repaved and anything circa 1950 is considered ancient. Savannah's a different story. It has guttering, gas-fed streetlamps, row houses built of a brick whose recipe was lost long ago and byways paved with worn cobbles. It's a joy to wander there, and while doing so I've paused every now and again to pull an out-of-print hardcover from my coat and read a paragraph underneath oaks that drip Spanish moss.

The book is cracking good, part adventure, part doomsday scenario, part primer on situation ethics. But I find I'm enjoying the physicality of the volume as much as the narrative it contains. A second printing borrowed through interlibrary loan, it has a much-creased spine proclaiming a faded title. The corners have begun a slow surrender to wear, paper peeling up and away from the thick cardboard beneath. The odor of dust wafts up from ragged-edged, yellowing pages, a scent as old as time.

I am not a romantic. I know that ebooks are the proverbial wave of the future, that they will largely wash away the need for loaning libraries and the very idea of out-of-print titles. We will have everything we want and more with the shuffling of bits and bytes over WiFi, and I cannot pretend that this is not progress. After all, I have an iPod and do not mourn the death of LPs and 8-tracks. Nor do I mind exchanging the jostling of cobbles for asphalt or flickering gas lights for electric. But I walk around this beautiful city where so much of the archaic remains and think of what we give up to gain. It's easy to forget that there's a trade at all.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Unknown said...

Some people DO mourn the loss of LPs and 8-tracks, though.

I don't think books will ever go away, exactly, but they'll definitely become more specialty items than the default mode. I imagine print-on-demand style services will end up very common and reasonably priced for a while until at last only hardcore collectors or indefatigable Luddites even want them.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, there still is a small market for them, especially LPs. I've noted that quite a few indie bands like to release their albums on them.

Your prediction about print-on-demand sounds right to me. But I think we're a bit away from the complete ascention of ebooks. I just don't think there's quite enough value there yet for Joe Mainstreet to make the switch.