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Shock of the Old

Shock of the Old

Luddites moan the iPad, Kindle and other e-readers spell the death of books. The ongoing popularity of vinyl records proves otherwise: the best technologies stick around.

Illustration by Mike Byers.

EVERY SO OFTEN, usually after a paycheque arrives, I head to the nearby record store and sift through rows of vinyl. LPs are rarely significantly more expensive than CDs, and sometimes actually cost less—one local artist’s hand-assembled record was $12 to the CD’s $18. Buying the music on iTunes would be cheaper, but just about every new LP in the store carries a sticker that reads, “Free high-quality digital download included.” When I get home, I put the needle to the album. Then I go to the record company’s website, enter my download code, and the mp3 files appear on my desktop. I have both analog and digital—no need to choose.

Vinyl never went away, as any young person in a city large enough to support an independent record store can tell you. Still, these are banner years for the medium; Nielsen Soundscan reports that last year’s North American vinyl sales surpassed 2008’s by 33 percent, while CD sales dropped in 2009 by some 18 percent. An estimated 2.5 million records were sold in North America last year, the highest number since Soundscan began keeping track in 1991. Even these numbers are likely too low, since Soundscan’s measurements do not include concerts and many shops that deal almost exclusively in vinyl. LP sales still barely make a dent in the music industry overall, but, along with paid digital downloads, they are one of its few growth areas. (Last year, a new vinyl pressing plant—the only one in Canada—opened in a Montreal suburb.) Best of all, vinyl sales disproportionately benefit independent retailers, where two-thirds of all LPs are purchased.

Book publishing, a few years behind the music business, is in its own well-documented state of flux. Books are vinyl’s literary counterpart, even though there is no CD or cassette or 8-track of the publishing world; book format has scarcely changed since Gutenberg popularized the printing press six hundred years ago. Yet the parallels between the two industries are instructive: slumping sales, competition from other media, piracy battles (only recently a problem for publishers as e-readers grow in popularity). Finally, now, we see the cautious embrace of digital—as long as there is profit to be had—and the emergence of the iPod’s equivalent in hype and glistening appeal, the iPad, which promises to sweep aside other e-readers, much as the iPod sidelined less fashionable competitors.

The similarities between LPs and books persist right down to aesthetics. Vinyl offers a listening experience light years beyond that of the mp3; where the mp3 sounds crisper and punchier, vinyl is round and generous, with greater audio fidelity. Vinyl is also tactile. You run your fingers along the sleeve’s edges, gingerly pull out the fat black disc, hear the pop and hiss as the needle settles into a groove. The process is much like leafing through a book, feeling the pulp under your fingertips, breathing in its smell.

But mp3s are excellent too, their convenience unrivalled. Sometimes you want to put on your headphones and go for a walk, or make a playlist filled with Top 40 hip hop, or peruse audio blogs to figure out whether you actually like JJ’s new album. These activities are impossible with vinyl. The newly ascendant digital book promises the same convenience: easier than lugging the newest hardcover or packing several novels for vacation reading, but harder on the senses and somehow less satisfying.

The paid-download format of iTunes is held up as a model for the publishing world, but the persistence of vinyl provides another: in books, as in music, there will always be an aesthete’s market. Audiophile snobbery and Ludditism aside, the dictates of individual taste mean we need not choose between digital and traditional. And if we can switch seamlessly between formats, then the end of physical, tangible arts is likely a long way off. This may not hold true forever—an elementary school teacher tells me her students refer to LPs as “those big black CDs”—but for the time being, a great many of us still want to hold, lend, borrow and inhale our books and music, just as much as we want to read and listen.

When we discuss the arts in the digital age, our conversation leans toward nostalgia and condescension: we assume the inevitable destruction of the older medium, and ridicule an entire generation for subscribing to a different aesthetic standard. We not only blame the internet for making music executives and newspaper barons less wealthy; we not only blame mp3s for championing songs over albums; we also blame the winds of change for eroding our language, our attention spans, our sociability, our very intelligence. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” Nicholas Carr wrote in a much-publicized Atlantic article from 2008, entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Maybe we do absorb information differently now; maybe we are more easily distracted. But there is not one troglodytic world of iTunes and e-readers and a separate Algonquin Round Table of gramophones and bookshelves. An older generation’s self-obsession perpetuates this myth, this decline of all things creative and worthwhile. I am in my early twenties. My friends and I spend as much time talking about the Believer and Mikhail Bulgakov as we do watching vulgar Zach Galifianakis videos on Funny or Die. We have not turned our backs on books, and we have not lost the ability to sit and listen to an entire album from start to finish. (Indeed, we’re the group that has seized upon vinyl in earnest.) We simply recognize that innovation is not better or worse—just new.

Older technologies persist because, in some cases, older does not necessarily mean less useful. If innovation were perfectly linear, the domestic horse would be extinct and compact fluorescents would illuminate romantic dinners. Ingenuity is flashy, but distracts from the incontestable practicality of what came before: bicycles (invented circa 1860) share the road with cars (1885) as airplanes (1903) streak overhead. This is the argument made by David Edgerton in his  book The Shock of the Old (2007): though new inventions make us foam at the mouth, humans do their most important work with proven technology. The old-fashioned Kalashnikov kills millions more around the world than any MQ-1 Predator drone; even in the death industry, utility wins over novelty.

Not that all such considerations must be strictly pragmatic. Serious economists no longer believe that rational self-interest is the sole driving force of commerce or invention. Likewise, technologies also share space with their predecessors because nothing—not efficiency, not even cost—can compete with emotion. When Polaroid announced in 2008 that it would discontinue its iconic instant film, enthusiasts came to the rescue. They reinvented the technology, designing a line of retro-futurist cameras (one even comes in a wood-grain finish) and a new type of film for the superannuated models. Relentless ingenuity to save an obsolete device—the effort’s masterminds call it the Impossible Project.

To gain the upper hand, new technology must prove its superiority through what academics call “disruptive innovation.” There are other ways to digitally encode music, but the mp3  undermined CDs because it was the earliest compressed file format to offer similar quality at greater convenience. E-readers as they are currently conceived, on the other hand, suffer from two competing problems: they either want to be books or they want to be computers. Kindles and their grey rectangular ilk imitate a form that has worked well for centuries, even down to the size and shape. Meanwhile, the iPad presumes you want to read literature on a ten-inch high-resolution multi-touch screen. Neither can compete with your father’s well-thumbed copy of The Plague. Books and vinyl are their own entities; because they came first, they mimic nothing and survive upheaval intact.

A latecomer to mp3 players, I mocked those gaudy iPod commercials until I unwrapped a gift and there it was, a small dark vision of the future. I haven’t listened to a CD since. Similarly, I have no plans to buy an e-reader. I spend enough time staring at screens; dead-tree books provide a welcome respite. And I am not going to spend heaps of money on a device designed to extend Apple’s near-monopoly on digital music to digital books. Still, I know that  the iPad’s price will eventually drop and new models will be released, and then I might reconsider. By then, I would not be surprised if I walked into a bookstore and found every new book bearing a sticker: “Free high-quality digital download included.” The publishing world, too, will understand that some choices are false.

Related on

—The Death of Record Stores
—The Not-Quite Novel
—Remixing the Book World

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