Who's Next?

It’s ghoulish, of course, but in a way, we’re all part of a tontine. That, as made famous by Thomas Costain’s bestseller of the same name, is a deal where people toss their money into a pot and invest it, with the full sum plus interest awarded to the last surviving member of the group. It makes for a great movie as the characters sit around toasting each other cheerily “Here’s to the next to die!”

Businesses watch each other, ready to seize the assets of anyone who falters. Athletes do it: everyone ahead of them who is injured or who starts to slow down is a step up the ladder for them. If Old Red in Accounting retires, the new kid gets that parking space. It’s all part of the passage of time.

This came to mind as I continued my reading about what a book-free, e-reader dominated world will be like. Everyone is ready to agree that books will not become extinct: after all, I still have customer for 8-track tapes. But the triumph of the digital text is simply assumed. Where authorities disagree is on what we’ll watch dwindle and die first. There are several views:

Pop Fiction Dies First. Romance readers get a lot of the heat, as usual. These are the people who read nine or ten books a week, weirdos that they are. What would make more sense than that a romance fan, mystery fan, fantasy fan would, instead of buying books which fill up available living space, simply invest in a Kindle and download books at their usual reading rate? This is dire news, of course, for all those people in the business of designing the steamy covers.

Scholarly Publishing Dies First. A scientifically-inclined bookstore has been hauling stuff over to us by the carload. As the volumes they’ve been charging $200 for get digitized, the value plummets. (“We didn’t give you the volumes for 1964 through 1973”, they told me once, “Those aren’t available on line so they’re not worthless yet.”) It stands to reason. Your research scientist wants to get the latest findings now, not six months from now after they’ve been proofread, printed, and bound.

Children’s Books Die First. I hear screams whenever I mention this theory, but it is only logical, after all. Books will be irrelevant to future generations, so why waste time getting them a lot of stuff to read? Teaching them that the shiny screen will bring them Winnie the Pooh in full color with background music is far more pragmatic. Plus, the books can be updated or improved at the touch of a button. Fusty things like “The House at Pooh Corner” can be replaced in a twinkling by “Pooh Teaches You When To Say Excuse Me”, a far more useful item.

How To Books Will Die First. Virtually anything you want to do, from making blintzes to camouflaging your meth lab, can be learned far more quickly through videos on YouTube. AND the instructions on YouTube doesn’t have the stains your mother’s cookbook has, like that brown blob that keeps you from reading whether you add 1 tsp or 1 tbsp of garlic powder.

Newspapers are goners—you can do the crossword puzzle online and win prizes. Magazines are moribund—a website can add new articles any day, not just once a month. Encyclopedias are lumbering to extinction, atlases can’t announce you’ve just reached Seeley Street. If you add all the theories together, you will realize that the whole world of paper reading material died last week and they held the funeral while you were out of town.

Tell you what. Print this blog out and file it in a binder or something. It’s not much, but it’ll make me feel better.

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