‘Out of Print’ Doc Examines The End of Print Books and What It Portends

    by Jenny Shank
    April 29, 2013
    "Out of Print," by director Vivienne Roumani, which debuted April 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

    People have used books as a reliable tool to transmit and preserve information, ideas, and stories for hundreds of years. E-books have enjoyed wide use for only about six years — counting from when Amazon introduced its Kindle in 2007. Yet e-books have rapidly upended so many facets of the traditional book world that the changes they’ve caused have inspired a documentary, “Out of Print,” by director Vivienne Roumani, which debuted April 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

    Through interviews with historians specializing in the history of books, as well as key figures in publishing, libraries, schools, bookselling, and cognitive science, and by presenting statistics culled from recent literacy surveys, “Out of Print” presents a portrait of a literary landscape in the midst of rapid change, both positive and negative. The advent of e-books has made reading more efficient and affordable for many and has increased access to and acceptance of self-publishing.

    But the troubling question 'Out of Print' poses is what sort of minds will the next generation have, if they are able to 'read' in the traditional sense at all?"

    But on the other hand, “Out of Print” portrays young people who are unable or unwilling to read long sections of text, and can’t retain or synthesize the snippets of information they skim. “A book is something I’m being forced to read, so I spend my time thinking about how I’d rather be sleeping,” says one teenage boy in the film.


    Another teenager describes the bewildering experience of visiting a library to conduct research. Although he may be hamming it up for his fellow interviewees, he describes it as “probably one of the hardest experiences of my life. There were so many books, each book specific to one thing. It’s not like you could find one book with everything that you needed in it. I was like, ‘this is terrible. I just want to Google it.’”

    Digital doofuses

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    There are surely plenty of teenagers who have not so completely outsourced the contents and abilities of their brains to the Internet as have the kids in this movie, but it’s clear that this is a trend that’s taken hold since 2005, when “adolescents started reading more on the Internet than they did in traditional materials.” One literacy researcher describes the current generation not as “digital natives,” but as “digital doofuses,” who retain very little of the information they glean from skimming.


    Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has probably done more to push forward the adoption of digital reading than any other individual, appears several times in the film, and comes across as an affable guy with his goofy laugh and ardent enthusiasm for books. “When you get into an author’s words, you can forget about that physical object [the book]. It disappears, which is a fantastic trick for a technology, to be able to disappear like that,” he says. He believes he’s learned more from novels than nonfiction books, and cites the work Amazon has done to make a wide variety of books accessible to more people.

    Still, Bezos doesn’t answer questions about Amazon’s practices and plans that some would like to ask him, such as Scott Turow, a bestselling author and the president of the Author’s Guild, who says, “I admire the creativity that Amazon has brought to the literary marketplace, and I despise the ruthlessness with which they act as competitors. They could do a lot more good with a little less savagery.”

    Turow appears as one of the only figures in “Out of Print” advocating for maintaining some of the old ways in the book world, especially when it comes to respecting copyrights, as the new methods for publishing and purchasing books don’t provide adequate compensation for most writers. He also believes Amazon engages in “predatory pricing” and that “by selling front-list e-books low cost are creating artificial incentives for people to move from physical books to e-books.”

    Robert Darnton, the director of the Harvard University Library, points out that while printed books can endure for hundreds of years, e-books pose new challenges for preservation, particularly because software and hardware become obsolete so quickly.

    The adults will be just fine

    i-ccb0793bd98012f91034033de7e3b85d-OutofPrint postcard no text-thumb-300x200-6600.jpg

    Still, the sense you get from “Out of Print” is that the adults will be fine — those who read will continue to read in whatever format they choose, and Bezos, Turow, and a few lucky and talented self-publishing figures, such as Darcie Chan, whose novel “The Mill River Recluse” became a best-seller, will endure.

    But the troubling question “Out of Print” poses is what sort of minds will the next generation have, if they are able to “read” in the traditional sense at all? “Out of Print” includes insights from researchers in child development and brain and cognitive sciences. As Nicholas Carr noted in his 2010 book “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains,” our brains are changing as we alter how often we choose to use them to read, and as we train them to rapidly access information on the Internet.

    Several of the teenagers in the movie confess to feeling “addicted” to the Internet, as do some mothers interviewed. “This is the way I feel when I stand in front of the refrigerator,” one book club member says of her Internet use. “I can’t stop eating.”

    “Out of Print” suggests that we’re all going to have to act like responsible parents, to ourselves and to our children, setting limits, if we want to maintain the heritage of philosophical and abstract thought, culture, and storytelling that the rich history of books has delivered us. Or maybe we won’t choose to maintain it. “Our brains aren’t designed to do any of this stuff,” one researcher says, referring to both reading books and using digital technology.

    While “Out of Print” won’t provide many startling revelations for those who have followed the rise of e-books closely, it offers a crisp, entertaining, and thought-provoking account of the radical changes books and literacy have undergone in the last decade.

    “Out of Print” will screen at the Newport Beach Film Festival on May 1, the Seattle International Film Festival on May 22 and 23, and at the New Hope Film Festival in July.

    Jenny Shank’s novel “The Ringer” won the High Plains Book Award. She writes about books for the Dallas Morning News and High Country News.

    Tagged: bookshift documentaries e-books ebook jeff bezos literacy out of print documentary scott turow tribeca

    7 responses to “‘Out of Print’ Doc Examines The End of Print Books and What It Portends”

    1. Vandrvekn says:

      It’s a little ironic naming it “Out of Print”, when a lot of actual out of print books are becoming available as ebooks.

      • A Reader says:

        I would guess the title alludes to the new reality that some books are not even published in print-on-page format at all, only as digital editions. Those are “out of print” from the point of creation. If all publishing is done in digital format only at some point in the future, and readers read only in digital format….that’s the future possibility I would guess the title choice might mean.

    2. anna says:

      I’m compiling my own little personal library at home, while I still can! Some day my grand kids will look at my dusty old books and wonder at how reading was done in the old days….ha!

      Actually, I’m already telling my kids about some of my favorites and encouraging them to read each one, which they hopefully will do with their kids and so on.

    3. BoSacks says:

      BoSacks Speaks Out: This article presents some thoughts about the “destructive” nature of the digital invasion into the lives of our children. I do question the veracity of the subject, although I hear much of the same when I travel and give lectures on the future of reading. Are there changes in society, schooling, information retrieval and learning? Absolutely. We do live in a new world with new thinking requirements. Is it the end of society as we know it? No, of course not. Our children are just as bright as ever, perhaps even more so. In the near future there will still be brain surgeons, architects, teachers, engineers, rocket scientists, and all the other vocations that a modern society requires. All those jobs require long form reading skills and critical thinking.

      This isn’t the first time that this generation thinks the next generation is not as smart as we are, can’t concentrate as we can. Every generation thinks that. Academics have been saying this stuff for hundreds of years. Look it up, see what they said about the hot-rodders of the 50s, the beatniks, the hippies, and the sad millennials. There is always a reason why “our” generation is the last real thinking generation.

      Throughout history there have been gradations of tone to the adaptabilities in all people, all children and all technology. There have always been some who can, some who sort of can and some who just can’t. Even though we might wish it, where is it written in stone that every child is a “winner”?

      It boils down to this, life and society will continue along its merry way and continue to become more complex on some levels and less complex on others. It has always been thus. Until I get a majority of parents telling me that their children are stupid and can’t make it in the future, I won’t buy into this end of the world program.

      So tell me, how are your kids and grandkids doing? Do you honestly expect them to be ditch diggers or captains of industry?

      Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.
      Thomas Sowell

      • Les Legato says:

        “We sit by and watch the barbarian. We tolerate him. In the long stretches of peace, we are not afraid. We are tickled by his reverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us: we laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond. And on these faces, there is no smile.”

        – Hilaire Belloc

    4. Life as we have known it is rapidly changing. It’s changing so much so that even the near future is unpredictable. Does anyone long for the old days of being paid a paper paycheck and having to physically visit a bank to receive our cash-in-hand? I doubt it. More than likely the book world will be the same. We don’t necessarily want the changes so much as having them forced upon us.

    5. Print books are the memory of authors, e-books are killing libraries

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