Why, For Me, Print Will Never Be Extinct

Regular readers of this blog and those who’ve kindly subjected themselves to my books will know that I’m a huge Jurassic Park fan. I love the book, I love the movie and even though I’m a total coward who wouldn’t get on a rollercoaster if I was told there’d be a million dollars waiting for me at the other end of it, I braved Universal Studios Jurassic Park River Ride just to see the JP view from the lazy boat ride bit that came before the 80 foot drop.

The first edition jacket design of Jurassic Park.

I love Jurassic Park because it’s one of the first adult books I ever read and I can clearly remember reading it—or trying to; it was 1993 and I was only 11 —in the little caravan my parents used to have installed by the sea. It’s not Pulitzer Prize-winning literature or anything, but it’s a truly great read and reading it was the first time a book really took me away. I re-read it at least once a year, and still have my totally tattered, dog-eared and barely-held-together-by-Sellotape movie tie-in paperback. And if you are thinking What is she on about? Isn’t that book just about dinosaurs?, then I’m afraid we can’t be friends.

And you’re missing out. Big time.

But anyway, my point is I love Jurassic Park. And because I love Jurassic Park, I got a bit teary-eyed watching this TED video in which designer Chip Kidd talks about working on book jackets for Alfred A. Knopf.

I was watching it because I’d heard it was funny and interesting and it was about book cover designs. But a few minutes in, I suddenly realized who I was watching. This was Chip Kidd! The Chip Kidd who designed one of the most iconic book covers in recent memory—the T-Rex silouhette on the cover of the first edition of Jurassic Park! I was transfixed as he described how he bought a book from the gift shop at the Natural History Museum in New York, found an interesting-looking T-Rex skeleton, put a sheet of tracing paper over it and filled the spaces in with pen. Then he added typography to give the cover an overall look of “public park signage”—which, as soon as you hear this, you instantly see and understand. It could be a “Warning: Dinosaurs Crossing” sign, which is of course the kind of thing you’d find in a park of dinosaur attractions.

(Albeit one where the fences had failed.)

A couple weeks back in L.A., I was floating through Barnes and Noble at The Grove on a fluffy cloud of contented delirium when I gasped at the sight of a special edition of Jurassic Park on a table a foot away (and then quickly looked around to make sure no one had heard me gasp).

It was a thing of beauty. Hardback. That thing where the cover is a soft leather and the imagery is embossed into the surface that I don’t know the technical name for. The original T-Rex. Two books in one, Jurassic Park and its inferior but still really good sequel, The Lost World. Silver-edged pages, and on them the original type that I know so well. A map of Isla Sorna (the island from The Lost World) inside, and a red ribbon to mark my place.

I was in love, and I could bring home that love for only $20. Despite my self-imposed rule of no book buying due to no space in my suitcase, I practically ran to the register to pay for it.

On another trip to that same Barnes and Noble, I came across the edition of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth that was made famous by Oprah’s Book Club.

My edition of Pillars of the Earth, AKA The Fugly One.

It really is a stunning-looking book. My edition of The Pillars of Earth is an offensive eyesore that I can only hope was “designed” (ahem) and printed before Oprah picked it and the eyes of the world turned in its direction, because it really is a horrible, horrible looking book.

The pretty US/Oprah edition, soon to be winging its way to me from Amazon.com. You can’t really appreciate this in 2-D; the physical book is all shiny and embossed and stuff.

The gold/cream edition hadn’t been in Irish bookstores and so now, naturally, I wanted to buy the pretty one, replace the ugly one with it on my shelf (or in the boxes I have in storage as I am currently bookshelves-less) and donate the ugly one to a charity shop or something.

Hearing this, my companion said, “But it doesn’t matter what they look like.”

I swear to the Book Gods, life left my body for a second. My heart felt it like stopped.

It doesn’t matter what they look like?

It doesn’t matter what they look like?!!

Are you ON CRACK?!

But then I realized something: this is why some people can love their Kindles without pining for printed books. Because they don’t love the books themselves, like I do. They’re just after the words. For me, the words are the most important bit, yes, but they’re not the only important bit. For others, the format is irrelevant. We’re two entirely different kinds of readers. And that’s fine. That’s great even, for them, because I’d bet they haven’t cleared out their bank accounts buying multiple editions of the same book because the newer one was prettier.

But don’t tell me that a world without physical books will be a better world. Don’t tell me that I’ll “get used” to e-books. Don’t tell me that literature is going the way of music, because I don’t know about you but I never lovingly stroked a CD case (except for maybe a John Mayer’s Battle Studies but that was for, ahem, different reasons…) or held it in my hands, gazing at it adoringly, while I listened.

You only think that people will one day ditch print books completely because you are not a person who loves printed books. You love reading books, which is a different thing. It’s just one component of what I love. And what I love can never be replaced with some HTML and some plastic.

There are readers, and there are readers who also love books. I think there’s enough of the latter to ensure that while we all might profess love for our Kindles, the printed book is here to stay.

Now kindly all go and read Jurassic Park.

[UPDATE 16.07.12: Woo-hoo—Freshly Pressed! WordPress obviously love JP too. Obviously. I think we should start a book club…]