During the first couple of years or so that man walked the earth there were not very many books. The vocabulary available to the cave man and the size of the reading audience were limiting factors. So was the scarcity of agents and publishers.
As things improved, a few daring wannabe authors chipped away on stone tablets and produced things that are still readable for the few that can figure out what the hell they say. The result was also not a highly portable library. If you moved you were going to have to pay a heavy fare to get those things loaded into the van.
The invention of papyrus, which was a lot like paper, made things easier, except for the translation thing again. Squiggles, backward writing, pictographs, not to mention things written in French, are not good literature. It took a long time for writers to smarten up and learn English.
Early attempts to improve the product included unbound volumes which were apt to change the way the story read every time there was a stiff wind. Some wrote on scrolls but, in a day when the scribe took a long time to produce a simple short story, much of the work was lost after being taken into the bathroom for reading. Sears ran into the same problem during the era of the outhouse.
Actual bound books made their appearance, still short of volume production, and ran into one of two problems. Either they were protected in private collections, usually churches, where they began to gather dust, or they were ‘circulated’ and gradually destroyed by use. The printing press, which is supposed to have been a great leap forward, merely compounded the problem. It is obvious that paper is not the best media for recording written ideas. Was it better for a book to last several hundred years and never be read or read by thousands and suffer the damage?
That problem was often solved simply by the quality of the book. Books that were not worth reading seemed to last forever while the good ones were consumed and gone. It was probably not a great solution. A recent modern attempt may have solved the problem.
A fetid flood of self published e-books has hit the market, very lightly.
Generally an e-book, particularly those priced from free to .99, can be defined as a book not worthy of being published on paper by an impatient author of questionable skill. Having taken several out for test rides, I have found that most are missing at least a couple of edits and a long search for a publisher.
They are, however, the answer to wasted paper and Publish America. Better yet they won’t be in the way for extended periods of time. Available on line or downloadable, they are on media that will be obsolete and unreadable in less than a decade.
They will litter desk tops and drawers but they will not fill the shelves of a library where they will gather dust while waiting for the rare curious reader. In an age where the contents of the Library of Congress will fit easily in the palm of your hand today’s e-books won’t even amount to significant landfill. The only danger I see is the escape of coherent strings of electrons into the universe where they will be discovered in some far corner of space. They will waste the time of intergalactic archeologists who make the effort to learn how to read them. They will also defame the cultural achievement of Earthlings.
Unfortunately books worth reading are likely to follow the same path. An easily portable library will be available on Kindle and similar tools. Hardware will replace hard copies of good literature. The latter will be harder and harder to find as old fogies like me, who want to feel that book in hand, die off. It becomes easier to picture a world with no libraries except those full of books that will never be read.
Will scholars opt to search the mildew saturated books on traditional shelves in libraries rather than to sit down with a beer and a bowl of chips in front of some electronic work station which also offers porn laden study break options? I think not.
Someday we may again reach the level of the cave man`s literature.