The Future of Books

by Scott London

booksAfter almost six years, I moved my office out of the old Lobero Building last week. I was astonished by the amount of stuff I’d accumulated during that time — the papers, yes, but especially the books. I receive a lot of review copies, but I’m also guilty of buying too many titles. It’s a tough habit to break.

As I was disassembling the bookshelves and moving the volumes out to the car, box by box, I was reminded of a time I had done the same thing two decades ago, only then it was vinyl records, not books. That record collection used to take up a small room, but today I can fit all my music on a single hard drive. In the same way, the arrival of the Kindle and other electronic readers, coupled with incredible search technology like Google Scholar, have rendered much of my book collection dead weight.

It’s not just that books are going digital. Used bookstores have now migrated online, which makes it possible to track down and order an out-of-print book in a matter of minutes. And if that’s too expensive a proposition, your local public library can quickly scan the holdings of other collections across the nation and have a copy in your hands in a matter of days via inter-library loan.

What this means is that it no longer makes sense to own a lot of books. If anything, it becomes a real burden, as I discovered in the course of this last move.

*

It seems I’m not the only one contemplating the future of books. As we know, the publishing world is in deep turmoil right now partly as a result of our changing reading habits. Publishers are “feeling the same chronic pain as other media businesses,” writes Brad Stone in the New York Times, “with layoffs, corporate restructurings and a general sense of gloom, doom and kaboom settling over name-brand giants like Random House and Simon & Schuster.” 

But amid all the anxiety, there is also a sense of optimism about the arrival of the Kindle and other readers that offer a glimpse of the future. “Just this year,” Stone says, “new electronic reading devices have emerged from Amazon, Samsung and Fujitsu, while mobile phones like iPhone from Apple have flowered seemingly overnight into acceptable reading devices for many bookworms.” (See Is This the Future of the Digital Book?)

The question is whether this represents a gradual shift or a watershed event for the publishing industry. Many have been asking this question with a mixture of dread and fascination in recent months. Bestselling author Paulo Coelho put this question to the readers of his blog recently and it stimulated a flurry of interesting responses. See Your Opinion: Will Books Survive?

Another valuable series called “The Future of Reading” appeared in the New York Times last summer. It took up the question of how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. See, for example, Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

What we’re all wondering is how this shift will it affect the way we do our reading and, more broadly, the way we make sense of information?

*

This morning, I ran across yet another interesting quote about the demise of the book: “The book, the most traditional means of preserving and communicating thought, has been for a long time destined to disappear, just like cathedrals, walled battlements, museums, and the ideal of pacifism.”

What’s remarkable about this quote is that it was penned not this year, or even this century. Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote these words in 1919. Museums are mostly doing fine, and the ideal of pacifism seems, thankfully, to be enjoying a renaissance. But it’s true, the book does seem to be on its way out. 

Obviously, Marinetti couldn’t have predicted the rise of computers and the wonders of Google, but he saw that the arrival of cinema as a powerful new art form was already beginning to transform the way we present and take in information.

I ran across Marinetti’s words in Richard Lanham’s fascinating and prescient essay collection, The Electronic Word. In the book, Lanham looks at the ways electronic text is changing the structure of communication. Unlike printed text which is fixed and authoritative, digitized text is interactive, dynamic, and capable of blending word with image and sound, he explains. The electronic word challenges the traditional concept of “text” derived from the printed book, and since printed books are still the cornerstone of Western culture, it also prompts a basic reassessment of the liberal arts and how they should be taught.

Lanham makes many important points in the book. He says, for example, that the most precious commodity is no longer information itself but rather the attention required to cope with it. In today’s digital society, we are confronted daily with a deluge of information. “Dealing with this superabundant flow,” he writes, is like “drinking from a firehose.” It means that how information is presented is critical. Digital text makes this point clear in a way that printed text does not. 

What Lanham does in the book is help us to get beyond the old argument of which is better — printed books or their digital equivalents — which is irrelevant in any case. He takes us a level deeper by asking a series of provocative follow up-questions. (More about Lanham’s book in my review of it here.)

And that’s the conversation we need to be having. The question, as I see it, is how to preserve and enhance the best of both printed books and electronic texts and make sure that we retain the essential qualities that make reading such an valuable — and, at its best, deeply fulfilling — activity.