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Down on the Farm: Are books doomed?

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Are books going the way of the horse and buggy?

Traditionalists may scoff, but the future of printed and bound books doesn't look good.

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After all, when you can carry 1,500 of your favorite books around in a hand-held device, why bother with the real thing?

Electronic books are not only more portable, but they cost a fraction of the real thing.

Old-timers may demand the books with pages and a cover, but kids know better. And the kids, with the aid of their computers, are taking over the world.

The giant retailers of books, Borders and Barnes and Noble, are going broke fast.

Some would say bankruptcy serves the big stores right for driving the little booksellers out of business.

But if the big stores fail, the little bookstores aren't going to make a comeback any sooner than independent gas stations that check your oil and scrub your windshield.

A town around here that is building a library faced some tough decisions: Are massive shelves of books even needed? What is the library for if not to store masses of books? Why maintain stacks of printed matter when it all can be found electronically on the Internet?

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia which is updated literally seconds after something in the world changes, contains almost five times the information as the legendary Encyclopedia Britannica.

Is the information as good? Who knows. Some of it is, some of it isn't.

The same could be said of any printed book. Information looks more convincing in book form, but that doesn't make it more true.

If there is controversy over Wikipedia's content, the adversaries debate the matter right in front of you on your computer screen.

Books seem like the final word, but that's just because doubts, debates and questions don't automatically appear in the margins of everybody's copy in real time.

The arguments for books are starting to look like the arguments for horse and buggy. Yep, there's nothing like snuggling up with a good book.

Tell that to the kids as they snuggle up with their iPad and bask in its glow.

Books have mystical value. Each one feels different. Each one smells different. They come in different sizes. There is aesthetic pleasure to be found in a beautiful book.

And horses are prettier than cars. Little good that did the horses.

What about the joy of walking the stacks in a big university library and seeing all of the books on one topic in one place?

People don't miss horse barns like they thought they would, either.

What about the fun of running across a book by happenstance that you never would have found if you had been looking?

It doesn't look good for the future of books, real books with pages and covers, books that smell better as they get older, books that gather dust until you discover one during a blizzard and read the whole thing.

Electronic books are antiseptic. They don't engage the senses. They don't become your friends.

The same could be said for cars. Although some people grow attached to their particular hunk of metal, it is nothing like owning a horse that you can pet and talk to and feed and train.

And yet cars won.

Efficiency drives progress, and it is clear that electronic books, which don't use up forests, which don't require shipping via UPS, are the wave of the future simply because they save time and money.

Efficiency is a cold and ruthless dictator. One by one, efficiency has robbed us of the small pleasures of life, pleasures like horses and steam engines and cars that you can fix yourself.

Now, efficiency is going to rob us of the companionship of a good book.

It is enough to give one a little case of Amish-envy.

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