Why are books - the physical object - important to anyone in this day and age? Back in my childhood, books were the repository of all knowledge. They were comparatively expensive and most people didn't have a lot of them. If you wanted had to write a school report on Cornwall, you went to the school library and looked up Cornwall in the encyclopedia, wrote down in your own words what the encyclopedia said, and that pretty much was all you were expected to do. Or, really, all you could do - unless you trekked downtown to the big main city library that had other books about Cornwall, and that took up a whole Saturday and yeah, right, I'm really going to do that. Once you had what the Encyclopedia said, why would you bother? I was one of those goody-two-shoes A students so I would sometimes look up Cornwall in two different encyclopedias in the school library (we had three sets) to see if one had more information than the other, but in my world that was stepping pretty far into academia and my social standing was in jeopardy.
Today, of course, if you want information on Cornwall you type it into Google and in .15 seconds you get 73,300,000 hits. We are inundated with information, and it is always there - the Internet is our own giant library - so why do we need to own any book at all?
Well, there's serendipity. On the Internet you get what you ask for, and only what you ask for. There is little chance that, browsing through the library stacks on the subject of Cornwall, you should run across a book on Cheshire, become fascinated with a photo of half-timbered houses on the cover, and soon find yourself leaving the library (or bookstore) with "The History of English Architecture" or "Life in An Elizabethan Town", and subsequently learn about all kinds of things you never thought you were interested in. You could do that on the Internet, but it turns out we don't. To get those 73 million hits down to something manageable we search by such fearsomely narrow descriptions ("Cornwall tin mines death 1732") that we dip into the information pool just long enough to fetch out the bit we need, and move on. So we can wind up with a lot more information than we used to have about some very narrow topics.
I took a workshop a couple of weeks ago, on social media and how the Internet is changing our brains. The older people in the workshop tended to reminisce about the good old days, before the Internet, when we were all literate and pure, and the younger people were rather preening themselves with the knowledge that according to the experts, as a result of their Internet exposure their brains would be changed forever. We were told that because people only spend a few seconds deciding whether or not to click on a particular link that is brought up by their Google search, that means people have some sort of Internet-induced ADHD. We were invited to remember how much time we usually spend dipping into a book before deciding whether to buy it, and to compare it to those few seconds those modern, brain-altered people spend making their decision.
I disagree. I think they're comparing apples and pomegranates. The SERP is not the same thing as a book. The SERP is like when you go into a bookstore and you ask "Where can I find books about Cornwall?" and they direct you to a section of the shelves, filled with fifty or sixty or a hundred books under the broad heading of "travel" or "Europe" depending on how many books your bookstore has in stock and how broadly they've grouped them. The Internet's SERP has 73.3 million books in it - if that were your experience in a bookstore, how long would you spend on each book? Exactly.
Now, say you're in your bookstore faced with only 30 books in the "Travel - Europe" section. What do you do? You pull out this one and that one depending on the title, and maybe the colour of the cover - what you can see from the spine. That's the equivalent of the few seconds deciding whether to click on a link. Then you glance at the cover. If it doesn't turn you off (and you can be turned off by the colour of the illustration or even the typeface) you may look at the back cover or dip into the text. That's the equivalent of the few seconds you give each link on your Internet search, once you've clicked on it, before you hit the "Back" arrow and take a look at the next link.
When you decide that a website you've reached from the link has the information you want, you spend just as much time on it as you would in the bookstore deciding whether to buy your book. And if you really like that website, you bookmark it or even follow it so new updates come directly to you.
That kind of time investment is maybe even more than you give the hard-copy book you bought in the store. So my conclusion is: are our brains being changed forever as the futurists (and future-fearers) claim? No. It's the same comfy old brain. We're using it in familiar ways. Not to worry.
By the way, today there's an interesting blog post on our decision-making via book cover. If you're designing a book cover, remember it's not all about what you think are pretty colours. It's marketing. It's about what your audience will choose to pluck from the shelves, or click on.