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Not a day passes without the future of the book being mentioned in the news.  It is not always headline news.  Mostly it isn’t — unless it is the launch of a new e-Reader, such as the news that came out last month that Kobo was partnering with W.H. Smith.  Besides such items, there is a noticeable, steady stream of announcements, discussions, articles in the media – and particularly the social media – about the book, where it’s headed, how it’s evolving and whether it will survive. 

A pick from the last few days includes a posting on the London Book Fair website about a new initiative launched last May by Penguin to promote self-publishing among novice writers.   For a “small” fee of $99, authors are given access to an online suite of self-publishing tools through Penguin USA’s Book Country site.  The idea is to give exposure to new talent cheaply and quickly and thereby help amateur writers “make their writing dreams a reality”.  According to Penguin, a small number of writers has already secured deals with literary agents.

Also announced last week was the adaptation of the BBC series Silent Witness for the e-Reader format.  A new company called Boxfiction, which describes itself as delivering new ways of “telling, sharing and writing fiction online”, issued the first of 9 instalments of the popular series that is being “re-imagined” for the digital screen.  Readers will be able to follow and download the episodes on a number of digital platforms from e-readers to tablets and laptops. According to Nigel McCrery, the series’ creator, “People haven’t lost their appetite for the written word, what’s changing is the form and medium in which it is consumed”.  What the digital medium enables, according to the people behind Boxfiction, is to transform the solitary act of reading into a shared experience.

That the digital medium is transforming not only the book, but the way it is published and consumed, is now an inevitable fact.  But will the book disappear? The other day I was on the train to work reading my book when one of the other passengers suddenly looked at me and said: “I remember those.... books!”  The parallel is often made between books and the way we now listen to music.  Music has gone digital much earlier, and much more quickly than books.  Who remembers vinyl? Who remembers the CD? Here’s another announcement from last week: it is said that the music industry will begin phasing out the CD as of next year.

The parallel between book and music is, however, not completely relevant.  Analogue music technology was much less versatile and much less durable than the book.  I’m not one to fetishize vinyl, but I do regret the loss of the paratext, not to mention the reliable and extensive meta-data, that accompanied vinyl: I used to spend hours poring over my lp sleeves, admiring the art work.  On the whole, vinyl was far from an ideal medium: records were fragile; they produced imperfect sound; and they were difficult to copy.  Books, by contrast, as physical objects and as carriers of information, are of a different nature.  Their durability and usability remains quite robust. 

I’m not a crank when it comes to loving the book.  In fact, I believe that the cranks might be the ones in danger of losing the debate.  When I heard Julian Barnes mutter something about preferring real books during his acceptance speech of the Booker, I admit I sighed somewhat wearily.  I don’t like Kindles either. The Kindle has for me some serious flaws, which have to do with the fact that every book on it looks exactly the same.  I miss layout, mise-en-page, typography, running headers, as well as the look and feel of a book: its texture, its weight, its cover design, and so on.  In my opinion Amazon has spent a lot of time and effort in designing a device that is light-weight and easy to read under different lighting conditions; but they haven’t cared about the design of the text itself. They haven’t considered that books are more than texts.

This is of course pure snobbery: I personally don’t care much whether I drink wine out of a glass or out of a plastic cup, so why should people care about matters that preoccupy me as a book scholar. 

In truth, I don’t expect people to care.  And this goes precisely to the heart of the matter. The Kindle is only one type of device that satisfies well the particular needs of what is (or used to be) the paperback-reading population.  I don’t like the Kindle, but I don’t object at all to the existence of e-Readers and digital books.

The debate about the future of the book is, in my view, too one-sided – or rather two-sided.  It’s full of either/or arguments, pros and cons, likes and dislikes. It is a debate centred on which format is going to survive: the digital or the physical book.  But this is no debate like that over Betamax or VHS.  For the time being, at least, it would seem that the physical book will continue to thrive and the digital book will continue to develop and grow.  On the one hand, the advent of computer technology has always gone hand in hand with with inflated claims and predictions.  Revolutionary though it is, digital technology does not revolutionize everything.  Christian Vandendorpe makes this point elegantly in From Papyrus to Hypertext: Towards a Universal Library (2009). Until about a decade ago the invention of hypertext was hailed as a utopian way of structureless, unrestrained, unshackled reading and writing.  Yet the Borgesian dream of the infinite book did not quite come to pass, for users quickly felt themselves getting lost in the labyrinthine freedom hypertext was offering.  While theoretically attractive, hypertext did not work in practice, and digital text increasingly began to mimic the format and structure and bounds of the book. 

It is interesting to think of how the Kindle in some respects harks back to a format that predates the codex: the scroll.  As with the world wide web, the idea of the “page” is now almost something metaphorical; to navigate through the text you use a scroll bar. 

The perfect future of the book, I believe, resides in how the best features of the two technologies – print and digital — can be used to enhance the experience of reading and to increase the flexibility with which information can be gathered, presented, consumed and repurposed.  Some very useful lessons in this respect can still be learned from the printed book.  The brightest ideas may well come from the past. And therefore a consideration of the future perfect of the book — the theme of a Book Research History Network colloquium at the Institute of English Studies— is an important matter.   After all, the twenty-first century is not the first time in history that the book and how it was produced (I use the term “book” now in its broadest possible sense, whatever its form or format) underwent radical transformation: from the scroll to the codex, from manuscript to printed book, from hand press printing to machine and offset printing, from writing by hand to writing on the typewriter and the word processor.  Not only what will be, but also what has been and what would have been deserves our attention.

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Tags: Kindle, book, e-reader, history, hypertext, printed, publishing

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