Does the book have a future in a digital age? (with online chat)


The decline of books:  Ever since Gutenberg, the paper-bound book has steadily risen in popularity.  Millions are published every year ...but will the electronic age spell the end? 

With sales down, bookstores closing, and e-books on the rise.  What is the future of the book?

  Watch the replay of the online chat.

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Over the last four centuries the humble book has grown to become a central part of our cultural lives. It has been the main vehicle to carry and disseminate ideas, stories, histories and even pictures. It has been the starting point for serious study and contemplation, by way of the rich body of collected works of thinkers and writers through the ages. It has also been the end point for diversion and entertainment as the novel developed and rose to heights of complexity and artistry.

Well, all that is changing, now that books can be rendered electronically. Some might ask, does it really amount to much of a change when it is simply a shift in the manner of presentation? Well... yes and no. Reading a book on an e-reader is not much different than reading it in a paper-bound form. Some might disagree, but it goes further than that. Once ideas, thoughts, articles and books are presented digitally many other things become possible. It affects the way the information is taken in and shared. Digital content can be active content -- meaning it can present links to related material or multimedia content. It means alternate paths can be offered and chosen while proceeding through a book. It can be shared simultaneously with others making it a parallel experience. This all has the effect of changing our focus, expectations and consumption of the words and ideas that have for so long come in bound form.

Ever since Gutenberg, the paper-bound book has risen steadily in popularity. Millions are published now every year. But with sales slumping, will the electronic age spell the end -- and what does that mean?

With book sales down, and e-books on the rise, along with online portals to sell them, bookstores are closing. Many have taken to offering more than just books to survive. They try to create events and communities where people can share in the love of what books have up until this point traditionally offered. Is it the beginning of the end for the humble book? Or, will all that love transform into something new and more complex in the digital world?

Our question today: "Does the book have a future in a digital age?"

I'm Rex Murphy ...on CBC Radio One ...and on Sirius satellite radio channel 159 ...this is Cross Country Checkup.


  • Carolyn Wood (on air)
    Executive Director, Assocation of Canadian Publishers

  • Sean Prpick (on chat)
    CBC radio producer of Opening the Book on CBC Ideas

  • Alison Broverman (on chat)
    CBC Books producer and freelance arts reporter

  • Shelley Macbeth (on air and on chat)
    Bookseller of the Year and Owner of Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge, ON.

  • Brian Stock (on air)
    Former Professor and International Chair of the College de France in Paris and Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto.

  • Christine McWebb (on air)
    Head of the digital humanities department at the Stratford campus of the University of Waterloo.

  • Hugh McGuire (on chat)
    Founder of Pressbooks, a digital book publishing tool, and co-editor of Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, a collection of essays from the bleeding edge of publishing.

  • Jim Munro (on air)
    Owner of Munro's Books, in Victoria, BC



I read a lot of books and since I have a small house and somewhat limited income, I can't afford to buy everything I want to read. I frequently use the library for both hard copy and eBooks, but I have to wait a long time for the new fiction I want, in either format. My city library offers a very limited selection of e-books and those I do want have an even longer waiting list than the hard copies. I'd be happy to pay $5.00 or even $10.00 to borrow an e-book for three to four weeks if I could get it soon after I request it. These are books I wouldn't be buying in hard copy because of the cost and space factor.  Wouldn't both authors and readers benefit from such an option? I think there are many others like me who want to read the latest literary and popular novels sooner, rather than later, and would be willing to pay for the privilege of borrowing them directly from publishers, authors, bookstores or specialty libraries.

Kitchener, Ontario


Yes, the physical book has a future, as long as people have space in their homes to store them. Despite the fact I love real hard-copy books, specifically nonfiction, I'm forced to use PDFs and other electronic media simply for lack of space in my dwelling. Again, for reasons of space scarcity, I don't usually print them out, and that I regret. In my case, and perhaps in that of others, the main drawback with e-books is that I tend to doze off in front of the computer screen, whereas that is less likely when reading the physical version of the written work.

Gatineau, Quebec


I am a huge fan of the digital book. As I travel extensively, being able to download books from the library is a life changing event. As a daughter of a librarian, I am of thought that buying books is actually quite silly. Now, with the digital library, it even makes more sense to use the library. But if I did buy books I probably would buy the actual book. It is pretty difficult to lend and share your books with friends when it is on your reader.

Radium, British Columbia


After looking at digital gadgets and screens with tiny pixels all day I love to read something real, like a book, and give my eyes a rest. Just like if someone offers me a sandwich on my screen, I prefer a real physical sandwich. The only thing digital in my meal is when I eat alphabet soup. My advice to people is be real and stop being digital everywhere in your life.

Montreal, Quebec


Your program today is about the future of the book, but how are you defining the book? A book is more than just paper and ink. A hard copy book is great to read in the bath, but keep the Kindle out. As a designer, digital books can be a richer experience but must be designed differently. It is foolish to worry whether you turn the page or click the page. We read for information and to experience different technologies will allow us to become more engaged with how we want use the book.

Vancouver, British Columbia


I have been migrating to e-reading this past year. I live an hour south of Winnipeg and every day I enjoy reading the Winnipeg Free Press subscription for which I pay half the cost of a print copy. It is certainly better for the environment but perhaps not for worker employment. As a person with strong near-sightedness, I love my iPad's scalable font and adjustable back light. I have a beef with e-book prices, though. For example, Cormac McCarthy's 20-year-old Blood Meridian costs $12.27 in paperback and $12.99 in e-book form at Amazon. This is difficult to accept. Fortunately, I discovered my local library has it for free in paper and e-book format!

Happy reading, Canada!

Winkler, Manitoba


I'm pro books - real books, not e-books. Why? It's because they are real. I love the look of them, how they are made, the feel of them, the smell of them... yes, the smell. There's nothing like the wonderful smell of an old book. I bury my nose deep inside the pages and take a long whiff. Nothing can beat that, certainly no e-book can. Am I old fashioned? Quiet possibly, but after spending all day staring at a backlit screen (my computer monitor) I don't want to spend any of my recreational time staring at that same screen.

And while things change and there may come a time when people sip their sunday cyber coffee while reading their e-book, I think there will always be a place in our society for real, printed, hard covered books. Just like people like to been seen in Japan carrying their Starbucks coffee cup, or businessmen on their way to work like to be seen sporting the New York Times under their arm, so will people like to be spotted with that real book in their bag.

Real books will never be out of fashion, especially in my house.

Kelowna, British Columbia


I am an avid reader and have been since I was in school. Back in the 1970s I was able to have books sent out to my home in Beausejour (Manitoba) from the University of Manitoba library, free of charge. I have read everything from War and Peace to my own collection of Anne of Green Gables. I now have an e-reader and, although its not the same, it does allow a less costly way for me to feed my reading addiction.

Oakbank, Manitoba


I had an unfortunate introduction to the Kobo e-book reader. After a long wait, the Victoria public library lent me one.
It was wonderful - light and clear, but I fell asleep reading it. When I awoke, I stepped on it and shattered the glass. The library charged be twice the going retail rate to replace it because the policy is to pay original cost, not current cost.

The Kobo did not come with instructions on how to take out a book from the library. (Happily it came with hundreds of books built in). I am a techie and figured out how to do it and posted the instructions on the web. It takes 19 steps! This is preposterous.

The publishers force the libraries to treat the electronic books as if they were paper. They are permitted to lend them out to only one person at a time, which defeats what could be an easily attainable technical advantage. It is like having a website only one person is allowed to view at a time.

Victoria, British Columbia


I dread the replacement of printed books. I don't like reading on screens. I love the feel, the smell of a book, the physical pleasure of turning a page to see what is next and the delight of seeing words and phrases on a page. The new apps or McBooks or whatever will never replace the joy of owning a book, of opening and beginning it, of feeling and turning the pages as you lie in bed.

Brandon, Manitoba


I'm a pediatric occupational therapist and author of Virtual Child - The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children. There is no evidence at this time that children can learn from screens. What we do know from comparative studies on book vs. screen reading is that screen readers have poorer concentration, attention, memory, learning, critical thinking and overall meaning than book readers (Mangen 2008). One measure of how well children are doing with all this technology is literacy rates. In Canada, half of grade-eight students do not have job-entry literacy for numerical, reading and printing. Parents and teachers might be wise to look at the research prior to immersing their children in the digital world.

Sechelt, British Columbia


Is it not pure insanity to make our lives 100 per cent dependent on the electronic circuit? The more we depend on that system, the less free we are. When it disconnects, then what do we do? There will be no reading, no money, no nothing! How appealing is that? Nothing we create is 100 per cent foolproof, especially since
we operate on Earth with so little wisdom.



Almost anyone who tries an ebook and loses themselves in a good story, quickly forgets that they are using it. The real change is the control that publishers gain over the user through copyright and DRM (Digital Rights Management). Electronic tools allow copyright owners (not typically the same as the artists) to enforce legal abstractions that were not practical in the past.  They give you a "license to a particular use" of a work that they control and can revoke at any time. This lets the controllers stop activities that readers have taken for granted for centuries, such as borrowing and second-hand sales. There was a case in the U.K. where a woman who had hundreds of dollars worth of e-books purchased from Amazon, taken back by Amazon, erased from all her devices and was given no recompense or even an explanation by the company.

Imagine if a bookseller could come into your house in the middle of the night, take all your books from your house and not give you an explanation, and legally at that. And why burn books? All a government or complicit company has to do is put a command into a system and the work is erased. Having a copy then becomes a violation of that license and a punishable offence. The legal system needs to change to ensure that the cream of our culture, our literary traditions and most important ideas remain available while balancing the legitimate right of the creators.

Thank you for the always stimulating show.

Calgary, Alberta


A long time ago when I worked for Xerox, Marshall McLuhan described xerography as the application of electricity to printing. E-books are the next evolution of this process.

North Vancouver, British Columbia


It's wonderful that one can borrow electronic copies of books from public libraries. However, the libraries have to pay a certain amount for a maximum number of downloads (I can't recall the number, but it seemed low). This is in contrast to the situation with regard to paper books, in which there is one purchase and the book may be lent as long as it hangs together. These are Monsanto-like tactics.

Ottawa, Ontario


What I miss is not only the loss of the community book store (which happily occupied a Saturday afternoon for me at least once per month), but the loss of the depth of knowledge and information dealt out to me by the booksellers. With all of the resources available in their heads, they were able to turn me on to titles, authors and networks of books and information that cannot be replicated by online shopping.

Calgary, Alberta


With excellent timing, I am about to self-publish my first book, a work of fiction. Although I haven't had my one-or-two hours of training by Friesen Press on how to market my little social work noir, I am optimistic that its eventual availability in e-book form will assist its distribution. My hopes are not necessarily high but I think e-books do cut a wider swath. Still, I personally like to hold the material I am reading in my hot little hand. Anything to add to the clutter in my life.

Denman Island, British Columbia


I think that books and e-readers could survive side by side. It may depend on marketing, type of books or other areas. Personally, I prefer the physical book. As I recall CD's and digital downloads were supposed to make vinyl LPs and turntables passe. From what I have seen, read, and heard, though, vinyl albums and turntables have been making a bit of a comeback. The same could very well happen with books.

St. John's, Newfoundland


As an avid reader, I was very resistant to the idea of an e-reader. A year-and-a-half ago my husband bought me an e-reader after I no longer had any room left to store books. I love my e-reader. I have actually read more books as a result of owning one. Living in a small town I could not always get the books I wanted from the local library or bookstores without having to wait several week. I can now purchase a book whenever I want to. I thought that I would miss that book feel, but the fact that I can look up words that I am unfamiliar with, and enlarge the print if I have misplaced my glasses, makes up for that loss.

Truro, Nova Scotia


My hope with e-books is that they will cause people to read more and I believe this is already happening. I think it's great that there is a new avenue to connect authors with readers. E-books can be much more accessible and Immediate. It's so nice to hear about a book on the radio and be able to purchase it right away.

I read both e-books and print books. Since i got my e-reader, my book purchasing has doubled (and I still buy just as many print books, and go into bookstores just as often). I think it is a misconception that e-books are causing bookstores to close. I think a certain online retailer, as well a few big box stores, have more to do with it.

Lastly, I do like the tactile experience of reading on an e-reader. And I have found that I have no problem reading an e-book in the bath.

Vancouver, British Columbia


I'm a university prof in music who performs as a pianist, vocalist, organist and conductor, and always with music books. I can't see them being replaced by e-books.

Sudbury, Ontario


I see a place for both (printed and e-books) but the book in print will be elevated to an art form or collector's book to display. Book stores will become small boutiques. I also like the opportunities offered to writers who are able to share their talents online, especially when large publishing companies are only interested in publishing books written by proven authors. A talented writer, quietly working away at home, can display their work online and gain a following without paid promotion. As in music, there is now a more level playing field that will allow talent to be discovered. E-books are also less likely to be shared as readers can no longer pass along books they've read to friends. This means more money for the authors, if I'm not mistaken.

Calgary, Alberta


My most prized possesion is an antique book I found at my local antique store. This book was given as a second prize to Violet Aldrich, for regular and good conduct, in the year 1900. The book is called The Keepers Of England, and is one of the most profound stories I've ever read. The book does not have a listed author, I think because it's a school reader. I love the book and feel saddened that if I had an e-reader I probably would never have been able to find such a treasure and read such a riveting story. I love the thought that a young girl was given a gift of a book. The gift isn't just the book, it's the story and the imagination it gave to this young girl. All I have to say is long live the book and the mystery and wonder of the written word.

Quesnel, British Columbia


I often sit in my chair in the corner of the living room on Sunday afternoons listening to Rex Murphy on Cross Country Checkup while reading a book. Up until about three years ago, the book was made of paper. Now, I have an e-reader.  I used to spend time at the library finding books to read and now I do my searching online. I do feel twinges of nostalgia on occasion about going to the library and have gone and checked out books the old fashioned way. I must admit that switching to an e-reader has resulted in greatly broadening my horizons in terms of finding new authors to read. This is due directly to efforts of online vendors such as Kobo, who will suggest different authors in their emails. Having embraced, I guess, at the age of 52 years, the use of an e-reader, I am not giving up on paper books, though. My children gave me a box set of the Winston Churchill biography by William Manchester which I am saving as a summer read.

Fort Frances, Ontario


I love getting my books signed! It's more satisfying to have an author's ink soak into the title page of their most recent work than to have that writer drag the rubber nub of a stylus across an e-screen of some sort.

New Westminster, British Columbia


I remembering hearing in an interview on CBC Radio One that the problem with digital readers is that the content can be edited and, in years down the road, there is a great possiblity that some books of controversy will not be the same as the original. As for books, I hope paper editions will never, never go out of style or print.

Kingston, Ontario


I dread the loss of real books, partly because I live in an area where I cannot connect to the Internet other than by dial-up, which means that I could never download a book. We don't have a mobile phone or a notebook device or any other hand-held devices other than standard non-electronic tools and utensils. Mostly, I just like books - books on shelves, books in the hand, books everywhere.

Tlell, British Columbia


I read books and magazines in both forms, the bias usually being the bigger the book, the more apt I am to read it electronically. The latest was the 1,200-page The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 3 by William Manchester and Paul Reid. I patronize Ben McNally's wonderful bookstore as often as possible, and as much for the great congeniality and ambiance as for the broad selection. I belong to two wonderful book clubs. I also  tend to read electronically if I am travelling due to the convenience it provides. The new Kobo with a backlit screen is terrific. But any book in my hands is a joy. May there never be an end to it.

Toronto, Ontario


All the book lovers argue that the book feels and smells wonderfully, which it does. I am a book maker (publisher, writer, illustrator and mender) and library assistant. But that is not what makes the technology important. The content of the books, scrolls, stone tablets or i-Thingies is what counts. And books will last as an art object into forever. But the technology of the book is important in this and future time. One caller touched on it when he spoke on conservation and archiving. Books are better at preserving content than all the digital technologies we have or are planning to have. In terms of access, I can go to the special collections department, pull down a book from 1650 and access the content. Try that with an iPad. Our current e-readers will last only 20 to 30 years in terms of actual access. Books are created out of a renewable resource and can be printed with environmentally safe inks, last for hundreds of years and are biodegradable. Digital storage devices have to be upgraded every few years, are created from limited (and in some case, blood-diamond type) resources and are an environmental disaster in terms of their end-of-life cycle. Once again we are enamoured of the attractiveness of digital devices. I am learning how to make e-books but, in the long term and for the health of humans and the environment, books are superior.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan


I am an independant writer and in 2007 wrote my first book, Women Not Wanted (in the RCMP). I tried to get it published but none of the many companies were willing or interested. I was told this book on sexual harassment in the RCMP is not relevant, or would not be of interest. From my persepective I knew that these serious problems needed to be talked about in order for more people to speak up, to provide education on harassment and the truama left to victims and make those accountable. It was expensive for the 1,000 copies of the paper book but more cost effective as an e-book. My second book, Lake Agassi Murders, is also an e-book and available by print on demand. Personally, I like to have a book at the beach or in bed and have yet to get an e-reader.

Sherry Lee
Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba


For reasons I don't really understand, books offer an experience entirely different from digital media. Books confer a sense of privacy, intimacy and calm, no matter how tempestuous the text.  Online reading is pixilated and feels intrusive and noisy, and seems to unsettle. This may be because of my age and experience, but I'm not sure it is. I know that a day spent with a book, or hand writing a letter, leaves me more satisfied and at peace than a day spent online, despite the virtues of speed and immense volume of information in that world. For this reason I will continue to treasure my library and write books and not blogs.

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia


For me, I can't walk past a magazine or newspaper without being grabbed by a headline or picture. I pick them up as they seem to call to me from the coffee table or counter. I also can't walk past a shelf of books or a bookstore without much the same visual grab and call. It isn't the same with my Kindle. I must go online to Amazon, find a book, load it and then begin to read. The spontaneity of picking up something to read isn't a part of the e-reading experience. I do not mind reading on my Kindle, it's very handy and I can carry many things on it to read and not be overburdened with a heavy book bag. But it isn't the same experience. This year several students in my highschool English classes have chosen to load books onto their e-readers rather than use the school-provided novels. I suppose this will be the way of the future in schools, and it seems to be sensible to have students access books in ways that they are familiar with. They will still experience the simple beauty of the language whether they read The Old Man and the Sea in the paperback or digital version.

Air Ronge, Saskatchewan


I have three girls under the age of four. They love books! We introduced them to books from day one. I can't see how that would be possible with e-books so there is definitly a need for books for the early ages. Later, e-books may work but for myself I like the physical book to hold. One of the changes with digital books is the whole area of ease of publishing and self-publishing. In 2012 I wrote a book and when I approached publishers I was told it was too religious from one, not enough Christian content from another and only fit for e-book from another. I ended up self-publishing but now I lack distribution. I am certain there are many books and e-books that will get missed because they are self-published and do not have good distribution. The digital age has made this possible.

Prince Edward Island


I love reading and prefer to read a book. I enjoy the tactile feeling, to know where I am in the book just by looking, creating a library, just to name a few reasons. I have checked out Kobo and Kindle and I can understand that both may be easier to travel with and offer many titles. Neither product was attractive to me. As I type this I lift my eyes to scan the bookcase seeing many titles, each bringing back a memory. I doubt that an e-reader would ever do that for me.

Hamilton, Ontario


I would consider myself a Luddite - something my daughters would concur with. I am hopeless with computers and need help constantly. When I first started to hear about e-readers I thought "why?" In my earlier life I greatly enjoyed working in two independent book shops for several years. I love reading. As a child I spent hours reading in the library as one could only sign out three books at one time. I can't go anywhere without a book. I am now 64 and am concerned that life is too short to read all the good books.

When my daughter was given an e-reader two-and-a-half years ago I looked at it, wondered about it and then liked the idea. I bought one and haven't looked back. I consider myself a real reader. One caller intimated that to be a real reader one has to read hard-copy books. Poppycock! When I received my Kindle I had just bought The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. In order to do a comparison between the e-reader and and the hard copy I bought The Children's Book for my Kindle. I loved reading it on my e-reader. It was far preferable to the hard copy to handle and so much easier for taking with me. And I seldom go out without a book.

Both of my daughters would not want to be without their e-readers. Now that my six-year-old granddaughter adores reading, her mother is planning on buying her an e-reader soon. I have helped convince two friends who were librarians to buy e-readers and they too totally love them. I now have a second e-reader which I use as my library card.  I am so pleased when the book I want to borrow is available in electronic form.

As well as all the other reasons for loving e-readers, a big plus is the fact that one never has to be without a new book to read.  When I finish one book and want another, no matter the time of day or night, all I have to do is buy or borrow one without leaving home. And although I do not understand how, it flies through the air with the greatest of ease to my e-reader.

Glen Haven, Nova Scotia


I am one of those older adults who, in growing numbers, have AMD (Age-related Macular Degeneration). I gave up reading paper books, even with a magnifier, until I got the largest Kindle. In the last three years I have been able to read dozens of new novels and other materials because of word-wrap and selectable large fonts. What a boon to AMD sufferers, and what a huge market for e-reader makers. Unfortunately the manufacturers do not seem to realize what a large market this is. I also have an iPad where reading, in most cases, is a terrible chore or impossible. Yes, I can enlarge some of the content, but most reading content I am aware of does not have word-wrap: that feature where when only so many words fit on a line, the remaining words drop automatically to the next line. Having to swipe  left and right to swing the remainder of a line of text into view makes it too difficult to read more that a few lines.

Winnipeg, Manitoba


Physical books are essential because we have some level of control over them. With e-readers your contracts allow the company that you purchased the e-book from to be able to remove it from your library if the want. But a physical book you own outright. No one can take it from you unless you let them. Also, physical books lead to conversations. People see the covers of your books and talk about them. I come from an oral society and we still tell our history and stories that way. We are able to still honour this way of life because our source is our brain and voice. When publishers and printers vanish then there is no one to supply this way of reading. Books feel more alive when they sit in your hand and you have that texture.

Toronto, Ontario


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