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Dispatches from the Founder | The Importance of Books

Books hold a very special place in world culture.

Most other forms of communication—newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies—are produced by large groups of people for large groups of people, known as “audiences” or “market segments.”

Books, however, are written by one person and read by one person at a time. This linkage of individuals over time and place makes a book a unique method of communication. I can pick up a book and learn from the experience, imagination, understanding, or creativity of another human being.

Other methods of communication are under the pressure of time. The Sunday Denver Post has to be printed and available by 6:00 a.m. at my home. The six o’clock news is on at a specific time. Time magazine comes out each week on a certain day. Not only are these modes of communication under extreme pressure to be produced quickly, they also disappear quickly. No one reads yesterday’s newspapers, last month’s magazines, or cares about yesterday’s news.

Books can last. Not all books, but some books. No one cares when a book was published; they only care if it is good. And if it is a special book, it may be read for years or even centuries. There is probably a book on your nightstand that was written before you were born. A book, like a painting or the composition of music, can be a method for an artist to reach for eternity.

Finally, newspapers, magazines, television, and radio live off advertising. The words and sounds are merely methods to bring the reader or viewer into the tent. The audience is preselected. The Washington Post or New York Times will have the same circulation on Tuesday, whether or not a particular writer or story is in the Sunday paper. They make their money on advertising, not on subscriptions.

Once again books are different. Without advertising or other sources of revenue, the publisher must depend on the words to attract an audience. And the publisher must have patience. Henry David Thoreau sold fewer than five thousand copies of all of his books during his lifetime. But his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has sold millions of copies in the last century.

These characteristics—the importance of the individual author and editor, no economy of scale, the permanency of books, and the need for patience in finding an audience all make books a unique way of communicating. And they also explain why publishing is a cottage industry, despite what the conglomerates and investment bankers claim.

Let me close with a few words about the free public library.

Andrew Carnegie donated money to assist communities in establishing a free public library supported by the town. “The fundamental advantage of a library is that it gives nothing for nothing. Youths must acquire knowledge themselves. No use to which money could be applied is so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.” Carnegie financed 68 libraries in New York City and 20 libraries in Brooklyn. Eventually, he contributed to 2,811 free public libraries, 1,946 in the United States, and the remainder in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the British West Indies. Some of these libraries have been in existence for almost a century. And during that time, tens of millions of people of all ages and backgrounds have been exposed to books full of new ideas and experiences, all while getting a continuing education.

There are now almost 17,000 free public libraries in America. And anyone can go to a library and be exposed to the knowledge, experiences, and imaginations of the world’s minds. They can have as a personal teacher or storyteller a person from distant places and times at their fingertips.

If someone chooses not to read and take advantage of libraries, it is their loss. In the journey of life, they may be passed by those who do.


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