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from "Yearning After Books," by Thomas H. Benton,, 10 October 2008 :: via Alan Jacobs

Larry McMurtry, in his just-published elegy, Books (2008), evokes the narrative of decline and fall: “How did one of the pillars of civilization come, in only fifty years, to be mostly unwanted?”

For such people, the bookstore is more than a business. “We always wanted not just books but a shop,” writes McMurtry. He laments the disappearance of secondhand bookshops, and concludes with a list of booksellers, many of which are marked, simply, as “gone,” the way 19th-century newspapers used to list the casualties of the battlefield as simply “dead.” “The complex truth,” McMurtry writes, “is that many activities last for centuries, and then simply (or unsimply) stop.”

The most eloquent reflection I have found on the future of books is Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2006), which strikes a balance between romanticism and realism, nostalgia and foresight. His reflections on books and technology emphasize complementarity rather than conflict: “The birth of a new technology need not mean the death of an earlier one: The invention of photography did not eliminate painting, it renewed it, and the screen and the codex can feed off each other and coexist amicably on the same reader’s desk.”

And, it may be that electronic technology is even more fragile than books. “There may come a new technique of collecting information next to which the Web will seem to us habitual and homely in its vastness,” Manguel writes, “like the aged buildings that once lodged the national libraries in Paris and Buenos Aires, Beyrouth and Salamanca, London and Seoul.”