Nearly three thousand years ago, The Epic of Gilgamesh appeared, or was assembled, and became one of the earliest examples of recorded literature in the western world. There is still a collection of twelve clay tablets holding one version of this ancient tale. Imagine: clay tablets, produced more than thousand years before Johannes Gutenberg gave us the gift of movable type. I don't think I want to read the story on clay tablets, but I'm very glad they've been preserved.
Readers often ask me if "real books" will go away. My first response, as an avid user of an e-reader, is that an electronic edition of a book is a real book. But my next response has more to do with Gilgamesh than with the Kindle or the Nook. People love stories. They can be passed on through oral tradition, as with Native American cultures. They can be told through plays--on stage or on screen. They can be performed in other mediums, opera or ballet or, a great favorite with commuters, audio books. There's a great demand for story, and I feel confident that if fiction didn't exist, we would have to invent it, and quickly.
There are occasions when a new medium vanquishes an old one. Talking pictures made fairly short shrift of silent films, at least commercially. Movies defeated vaudeville. Arguably, television diminished the popularity of the radio play (a medium I love, when I can find it.) But books, I have no doubt, will always be with us.
An important thing for book lovers to realize is that the electronic book is, at the moment, a great boost for sales of paper books. A paper book is expensive to make in terms of materials, time, and labor. The e-version of that same book costs far less to produce, is instantly transmissible, and potentially more profitable. This means that for a struggling publishing industry--peopled, I assure you, by book lovers--e-books not only stimulate sales of paper books, but can help to pay for them.
Movable type made books and other published material available to everyone, not just royalty, the very wealthy, or members of the church. I've always wondered if there people who objected to this new-fangled process. I'm pretty sure there must have been, if only because it meant a transfer of power to the masses through the dissemination of information. Even though the Gutenberg process must have swiftly displaced the old, one page at a time printing process, the book not only survived, but was immensely strengthened by it. Authors like me must have looked on this as a great boon, and it's the way I look at the e-book. It doesn't detract from our bibliography; it expands it.
I was reminded of how much we book lovers care about the book as a phenomenon when I visited my local Borders one last time. There's nothing like watching readers browsing book shelves, seizing upon new discoveries, happening upon familiar old friends among the titles. There may be a day--far in the future, I think--when the paper book will be a niche market, but we're not there at the moment. And even if that happens, there will still be books. If those clay tablets can survive, the traditional hardcover certainly will!