Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Of books and 78s

I grew up listening to 78s. Really. I'm only 43, so I would guess I am probably one of the youngest people around who spent her childhood listening to a steady diet of 78s. My dad, who's a jazz fan, had thousands of them, and every single night we listened to them (at painfully high volume-- it's no wonder the man is deaf now) from five to eight o'clock.

What is a 78, you ask? Or maybe you didn't ask. But in case you don't know, it's one of these:

Yes, it's a record, but not the LPs you probably remember from your youth. At ten inches, it was only a few inches smaller than an LP, but it spun very rapidly and contained about three minutes of music per side. (If you wanted to hear classical music back then, it came on twelve-inch discs, which provided you with four to five minutes of music per side. Imagine trying to get through a symphony that way.). It was made out of shellac, a brittle substance which shattered if you dropped it and developed hideously awful surface noise very quickly.

For fifty years, these were what you listened to if you wanted to hear music. And I'm sure they were a great improvement over the earlier technology, otherwise known as, "Hattie, I'd like to hear some music-- why don't you go play us a few tunes on the piano?" But once the LP was invented, the 78 died a rapid death, and rightfully so. (RCA Victor actually introduced an LP of a sort in 1931, but it only played ten minutes per side, and alas, no one had any money, so it was withdrawn from the market by 1933.) But when the LP as we know it was introduced in 1948-- well, three minutes vs. half an hour of playing time per side, less surface noise, and a record that doesn't shatter if you drop it. Which would you choose?

So the 78 is now dead (my Dad read somewhere that the last manufacturer of 78 styluses has discontinued making them, so it's not just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead), and with very good reason. It was the best technology available at the time, but once better technology was invented, there wasn't much need for it, especially once all those old songs were transferred into CD format and remastered to get rid of all the surface noise. (And even the obscurest of the obscure has been put into CD format now.) The LP died for similar reasons, and now the CD itself is on the way out, killed off by a more convenient technology.

So is the same thing going to happen to paper books? Are they a technology (so to speak) that will be rendered obsolete by ebooks? Well, paper books don't have a lot of INconveniences. Unlike the 78, with its dreadful surface noise and its too-short playing time, they fulfill their function fairly well. I do suspect, though, that as people get used to carrying a library in their purse, they may begin to find books rather 78-like... too bulky for the content, in other words. Also, paper books can't have their font increased in size (which can be a big deal for a lot of us), and they can't be bought in ten seconds as you're browsing online. So while there's nothing wildly inconvenient about the paper book that makes it clearly doomed, the newer technology definitely offers some significant improvements.

It's worth mentioning that the 78 was actually replaced by two different formats-- the LP and the 45. They existed together for quite a while. I wonder if eInk (Kindle, Nook) and LCD screens (NookColor, iPad) will continue to exist together? They might appeal to different enough segments of the reading audience that they can both continue. Like the LP and the 45, there may never be a clear "winner."

I have to add that the tendency of paper books to accumulate can be both an up side and a downside. I readily admit I have too many books cluttering up my house. Even so, I really can't imagine my house without books lining the walls. Maybe that's just a retro thought, left over from my childhood conditioning (along the same lines as the common plaint "but I love the way books smell!"). But I like the thought of my kids growing up surrounded by books. A thousand books on my Kindle doesn't seem like it would have quite the same impact on their psyche somehow.

At any rate, unlike the 78, I suspect paper books will be sticking around for a while. But ebooks are certainly going to take over a large portion of the market fairly soon. It's really only a question of how long it takes, IMHO.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Paper books aren't going anywhere, but ebooks are going to get more of the market share.