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Books—The Next Chapter

by Sabrina Wong

Professor Roger White, Ed.D., cradles what looks like a navy blue pocket calendar in his hand. In actuality, he holds a copy of the classic Anglican text “Sermon of the Plough,” by 16th-century martyr Hugh Latimer. The pages show a little wear and tear, but the book remains in excellent condition, considering its age—more than 400 years old.

“Sermon of the Plough” can be found online, but an electronic version doesn’t deliver the sacred experience that comes with the decorative flourishes in the calligraphy, the weathered feel of the leather binding, and the delicate rustle of the pages. As a faculty member assigned to the university libraries special collections, White clearly prizes the beauty of these printed words. However, as an expert in educational technology, he also recognizes that the increasing popularity of ebooks may spell an end to the widespread use of physical books as we know them.

Last year, online retailer Amazon.com announced that ebooks outsold hardcover books by almost three to one. According to the Association of American Publishers, ebooks account for nearly 10 percent of book sales. In a New York Times interview, Mike Shatzkin, an expert on digital change, predicted that figure will rise to 75 percent in the next 10 years. As ebooks rapidly revolutionize the publishing world, the value of many books may become like that of Latimer’s sermon—an object akin to a treasured museum piece featured in a university’s special collections.

White sees physical books taking on an increasingly emotive character. “Think of a special greeting card that someone has picked out for you. There are images, a handwritten note, and a signature. It’s something you can keep and put away. There’s an emotional connection that is just not the same as an electronic version. It doesn’t evoke the same affect.”

English Professor Joseph Bentz, Ph.D., believes that ebooks will change both the way people read and the way authors write. “Reading a physical novel is a solitary experience,” said Bentz. “eBooks bring potential for people to comment on sections, initiate discussions, and interact about books on social networks like Facebook. As people expect more interactivity, authors will write books that incorporate multimedia such as maps, photographs, videos, and music.”

Bentz, whose academic interests include 700-page novels by Thomas Wolfe, sees changes in reading as part of a larger shift in the way technology affects people’s attention spans. “The deep concentration that is part of the magic of reading novels, in particular, will be lost—and is already being lost,” said Bentz. “It’s hard to become part of another world when you keep getting pulled out of the text to follow a link.”

With all the potential and availability of ebooks, the fact that most students prefer to keep their backpacks stocked with paper books may come as a surprise. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 76 percent of students prefer printed textbooks to electronic versions. University Bookstore Manager Diane Teague concurs, “Students just aren’t interested in etextbooks. They prefer to read from physical books rather than a screen.”

D.J. Brinkerhoff ’12, who attended a technology-focused charter high school, believes a robust device designed for students could spark an interest in etextbooks. “The Kindle lacks functionality and the iPad is not focused on reading. The best device would include note taking, a Web browser, a planner, and academic reference software.”

While APU undergraduates have a vision of what they want in ebooks, graduate students make the most out of them both in the University Bookstore and university libraries, which hold more than 60,000 digital books. According to Kimberley Stephenson, MLIS, assistant professor and Web services librarian, the libraries’ ebook databases primarily support regional campuses and online students, particularly graduate students in education and business. Ideal for students in places like China and South Africa, ebook databases make library books available without a trek to Azusa.

“APU can provide electronic books and journals to students throughout the world,” said Liz Leahy, MAT, MLS, professor of theological bibliography and research and special assistant to the dean of university libraries. “We offer many wonderful databases such as Past Masters, which contains fully searchable texts of important philosophers and theologians.” While Leahy values this electronic access, she still enjoys browsing the library and used bookstores for wonderful old books.

Those fortunate enough to visit the APU library might want to make an appointment to see a special tablet about half the size of a Kindle. Once the height of its civilization’s technology, this Sumerian artifact dates to 1950–1750 BC. The painstakingly chiseled cuneiform writing on this clay tablet artfully displays the human instinct to express ideas for future generations. No one knows what form written expression will take 4,000 years in the future. One thing, however, remains true—at the end of time, there will be books: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life” (Revelation 20:12).

Sabrina Wong graduated from Stanford University with a degree in English. sabrinawong@gmail.com

“According to the Association of American Publishers, ebooks account for nearly 10 percent of book sales. In a New York Times interview, Mike Shatzkin, an expert on digital change, predicted that figure will rise to 75 percent in the next 10 years.”
“The University Bookstore and University Libraries hold more than 60,000 digital books.”

Originally published in the Summer '11 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).