Books matter for many reasons.
Among the best contemporary reason is the same (old, timeless) quality they have always possessed: books hold between their covers information.
If “information” is the measure of what one does NOT know, then books are perfect venues for collecting, arranging, interpreting, and synthesizing facts, opinions, and reasoned arguments on a subject.
Books are the earliest “aggregators,” a term today that references digital algorithms mindlessly assembling information for presentation on the Web.
Often, though admittedly not always, a book is the product of the scholar’s sustained investigation. Hence, authors are (supposed to be) mindful, not mindless.
Though lacking the spontaneity of, for instance, Twitter or Facebook, books are a perfect medium for reflection. “Brooding scholarship,” as I once heard it referred to.
Few are opposed to spontaneity. (How could one be opposed?) And certainly for such things as restaurant or movie choices, spontaneity is valued.
But when it comes to information – what one does not know – spontaneity dips in significance.
For policy decisions, to take an extreme example, I think we prefer careful reflection over casual, in-the-moment spontaneity. An individual’s career aspirations, for another example, I suspect are likewise better served in a thoughtful fashion.
What the digital age uniquely affords is a kind of modified interactive environment. Unlike the face-to-face form of interaction, digital interactivity is delayed (like most of what was previously called “mass media”) and it can also be cumulative.
Comment, correction, addenda, and the like are easily accommodated in the digital world.
That there is more than one way books matter is true. And that today’s digital world affords more than a one-way connection between book author and book reader is also true.
Now, what will book publishers and book readers “do” with the digital advantages they now possess?