The Future History of Biographies: Part II

Sometimes I don't bring my 'A'-game to the table when writing for the site. Sometimes I post something at the end or the beginning of a long day. Sometimes having the forum this site affords me to share thoughts milling about in my mind doesn't necessarily lead to compelling reading. Sometimes the ability to share thoughts instantaneously with the world at large isn't the best thing that technology has done for our society. Just like in real life, sometimes our e-selves just have bad days. Perhaps all of these factors contributed to a less than robust posting late last week (as well as some others in the past...but we will let those sleeping dogs lie).

Indeed, where is the law and/or the economics in  questioning how biographies will be written in the future? Now, of course, being a law and economics site, we can almost always find a legal or economic touchpoint in a story. However, it would take some mental and verbal gymnastics to work out a good, relevant legal/economic story out of our 'Biographies' post. This should probably have become obvious when I barely even made an attempt to do so.

This was brought to our attention by an honest reader who noted that the sidebar to that story was probably more intriguing than the story itself. For anyone who doesn't care to click back to what I have already described as a lackluster effort, the sidebar included the following thought: because physical books, in addition to the words they contain, give utility to owners, they will continue on as a viable commodity. This is in contrast to other media for information, such as CDs, which have been made irrelevant by iPods and the like. I concluded that the market for actual, tangible books would remain even in a world of Nooks and Kindles.

Despite finding this thought interesting, the commenter disagreed with it. To him, the stronger analogy was to records, another medium which was inherently pleasurable but which still, to a great extent, fell by the wayside. Maybe it is worthwhile, since this topic is of more interest than the idea that autobiographies will be more prevalent than biographies in the future, to take some more time to explore it.

There is certainly quite a lot of circumstantial evidence to support my commenter's analogy, much of which hits rather close to home having a few family members who have been involved with the book industry in both sales and printing roles. From this personal experience, I can say that printing jobs are becoming harder and harder to come by, and that book stores, from the local used shop to the megastore, are in various states of distress.

To anyone following the recent news and noting the demise of Borders, this latter observation should not be at all surprising. As fans of supply and demand models on the site, we also concede that greater sales of books on electronic devices necessarily mean less sales of actual books in a constant or even moderately growing reading pie. Incidentally, this is likely one of the reasons why Borders failed while Barnes & Noble received a cash infusion; B&N produces one of the more succesful e-readers while forays into this market by Borders failed. Another bit of evidence would come from the news industry where, pleasurable qualities of thin, ink-scented paper aside, much of the content of the news world can be found on electronic sources.

Faced with such a body of evidence, I would typically concede the point. However, logic aside, I just feel that books are different from other forms of media. I freely admit that I can find more reason to disagree with my own statement than I can to support it, and this site isn't typically a forum where sentiment reigns. However, I have to say that I think the future of the book is secure.

Maybe the vanity of law schools who need to show something tangible in their libraries from all of the donations they solicit will help the cause. Maybe grade schools worried about utilizing highly motile electronics around mischevious hands will contribute. Maybe the nostalgia surrounding paperbacks on the beach will lend a hand. Maybe saps like me will continue to find pleasure in the smell of an old, well-used hardback while still finding great value in my e-reader. Whatever it may be, I just have a feeling about this one. However, if we are still around in, say 15 years, we will be sure to check back in...

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