For 500 years, Western culture, for better or worse, was formed by its books. Great novels have held up a mirror to the foibles and absurdities of human nature, while book-length manifestos have set the terms of political debate and social struggle (think Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Marx’s Das Kapital, or even Hitler’s Mein Kampf).
For decades now, we’ve heard predictions that a culture founded upon the book is on its way out. The electronic culture ushered in by TV and confirmed by the Internet, we’ve been warned, would eventually render most people incapable of the kind of concentration required to really inhabit a serious book. Teachers have regularly reported a decline of interest in reading among the coming generations.
Despite these warnings, the book publishing industry marched on. Book sales kept rising. Sure, sales figures were pumped up by relentless niche marketing, fad-pandering, and Hollywood tie-ins. Still, books were moving off the shelves. But now the declining importance of print has begun to show up on the bottom line. According to a report by the Book Industry Study Group, in 2007 overall book sales barely increased at all, and would actually have declined if not for a single title—the final installment of the Harry Potter series. Publishing giants, such as Random House and Simon & Schuster, are showing declining incomes. Meanwhile, sales of books for young children are declining, which confirms the common-sense impression that, with each passing year, the place once occupied by books and reading is being filled by electronic gadgets with hypnotizing screens.