This is a topic near and dear to my heart...and wallet.
(Warning: Analysis filled with sweeping generalizations--many of them supportable--follows. Some of it is very telegraphic. Some, self-indulgent. Ponder at your own risk.)
I don't think the U.S. is reading less. I think it's stable, or has grown some.
I agree with Mr. Duncan. I think people are reading less hard-copy printed material.
Certainly, independent booksellers are having some difficulties. (If you are interested, here is an article set on current trends: A.B.A. Bookweb Statistics/Articles
Newspapers and magazines have also shown a marked drop in general circulation.
More and more, folks are gleaning their news and information from online sources. Why subscibe to the New York Times when it can be had immediately, at one's desk, for free? No more smushy grey mess in the bushes on rainy days. (There are lots of good answers to that one, but I ask you to simply cede the point for the moment. Newspaper ciculation is down nationally. Newspapers are becoming increasingly national with less truly local content.)
Books are a mixed issue. The total number of books being purchased may be stable or increasing slightly. What appears to be decreasing (rapidly) is the total number of titles being published. This may appear to be a paradox, but it isn't: A relatively few titles are garnering a HUGE proportion of the market. Because a few entities--I won't mention them here, but their initials are A., B., B.& N. and O.--are marketing a specific set of titles NATIONALLY.
(Those fans of Wendell Berry out there will note the symetry of monoculture creeping from agriculture to culture in general and be morbidly gratified.)
There is no inherent wrong-doing in this. What is wrong is the effect: Almost everybody is adhering to the same fairly limited set of entertainment and study possibilities. Intellectual monoculture predominates over diversity. This is no difficulty at all...unless the system fails.
(Here, I pause to remember the words of my grandfather, uttered to me in a jovial, if weak, way from his death bed, "It's a great life...if you don't weaken.")
The same can be said about the culture of magic.
Academic presses--once the lifeblood of the scholarly community--are gradually succumbing to economic factors and many are folding OR are scaling back the range of their publications to what is immediatly profitable.
In many ways, magic is similar to an academic discipline in that it appeals to a very specialized market. Unsubsidized publishers in niche markets often have to struggle with rejecting or delaying meritorious books simply because the economics of the market can break you quickly if you publish in error.
One quick away around the issues of economics is the road followed by many in magic: Publish yourself in "eformat". Ebooks, usually at lower costs than a printed tome, are becoming common. Mr. Cataquet's comment about Close's last ebook is on the money.
The same is true for other specialized information. Many volumes of standard information in the medicine, engineering and law are now being produced in ebook format. Computers and PDAs are manditory in many--if not most--professional programs in the U.S. The format is changing.
So, whither the book?
Unless I miss my guess, specialty publishers will be pushed increasingly in two directions: "E-format" or "book-as-luxury-item." We see it already in magic. Lybrary.com on one end and Todd Karr, and increasingly, Mike Caveney, on the other. In the middle we have stallwarts like Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Minch solidering on doing their best to produce a range of books but relying heavily on highly relevant, highly sought items that will, in terms of their market, be bestsellers.
Anyone making their livelihood in publishing these days is brave. (Or foolish: But the fools don't last long.) Making a livelihood by counting on bestsellers
in a niche market is somewhere between epic heroism and a gambling addiction.
Furthermore, the distribution chain for "eformat" is already beginning to rationalize. Lybrary now distributes for clients.
I note that, today, there are collectors of stone & clay tablets, scrolls, winter counts, codexes and various incunabula. Those modes of recording information thrived for thousands of years and were supplanted by the hand-bound book, which was supplanted by the mass-produced book...which is now being supplanted by a variety of e-formats.
Will the book go away? Absolutely not. Will the form change and the number of titles dwindle? Certainly and almost certainly.
Culturally, is this a good thing for either magic or the culture as a whole? The degree to which we rely solely on electronic media is the same degree to which I am dubious.
Culture relies on the intellectual equivalent of the second and third laws of thermodynamics. (1) Ideas can neither be created nor destroyed: They can, however, wax or wane depending on their propagation. (2)Obscured ideas have a tedancy to remain obscure without active propagation.
In the comparison of systems where ideas are hooked immutably to a complex distribution system requiring plentiful energy for its simple operation, complex production and retrieval technology, and huge industrial support just to maintain the distribution of the information, versus a system where the energetic production costs are loaded on the front end; I think systemic "failure" is much more immanent in the more complex system.
In simpler terms: Much has to work, permanently, for electronic media to serve it's purpose. A book--the materially printed word--simply has to be produced and stored somewhere moderately weather-proof. It will endure centuries without additional maintainance.
To wit: I have thrown away my 5" disks. I am eyeing my 3" disks, wondering what might be buried there. I am looking at my cassette tapes and pondering their immediate future.
I listen to the first CDs I bought which are starting to skip and stutter. My CD-R, CD-RW and DVD-R media seems permanent...but is it?
On the other hand, I just started reading my set of Journeys Through Bookland
to my son. Journeys Through Bookland
was purchased, used, by my grandmother in the 1940's to read to my father as he grew. In the 60's and 70's, my father read them to me. And I am looking forward to my sons reading it to my grandchildren....
Similarly, I read John Carney's Secrets
a year or two ago. I love the book and have been playing with it ever since. I picked up his DVDs, too. They are excellent.
Should my sons enjoy magic as I do, I am most certain they will receive and benefit from Secrets
. Whether Mr. Carney's performances will survive into their hands, I cannot say....
Finally, to Asrah's query:
Magic will not be without books.
But the true secrets of our art may fade from the flurry of electrons available to the many and reside increasingly in the candle-lit pages of tomes preserved by the few.
Whether they will languish or propagate, is the only question.
And, truly, that is not much of a question....