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Book History and Print Culture at the Millennium (March 2014): The Future of the Book

by James K. Bracken

The Future of the Book

Leave it to Greenhaven Press to turn the printed book’s survival or demise into a rhetorical question with canned answers.  Are Books Becoming Extinct?, a volume edited by David Haugen and Susan Musser in the “At Issue” series, reprints previously published articles, “edited for length” and with rather disingenuously adjusted “original titles” that portray in black and white various considerations about the book’s future.  In this sort of generalized thinking, as goes authorship, editorship, printing, publishing, selling, reviewing, reading, or preserving, so goes the book and print culture.  But when you cut through the hyperbole, ask the question about what exactly anyone thinks is dying.  The book’s codex form?  Book publishing or bookstores?  Writing and reading?  A traditional hierarchy of cultural authority?  Just about everyone has an opinion about the book’s future, and serious apologists come in several varieties.  Some view the book’s loss of its physical form as positive.  Others see only the negative.  Responses from the perspective of book history are more nuanced.

Perhaps the loudest knell is Jeff Gomez’s Print Is Dead, a quick-moving and perceptive discussion of how book publishing needs to change in order to remain relevant.  Gomez draws parallels to other print and broadcast media, the recording industry, telecommunications, the computer industry, and the postal service to show that the book’s physical evolution is stuck in early development “somewhere between vinyl and eight track.”  According to Gomez, the Internet, which has changed everything—and most particularly, readers’ expectations—can now free the book to compete better for consumers’ attention via interactivity and personal customization.  Gomez advises publishers to abandon the book’s physical container and exploit the Internet’s capacity to communicate the ideas that consumers want, including and perhaps most especially their own.

Likewise, Sherman Young’s The Book Is Dead, Long Live the Book argues that the printed book’s future is really about publishing ideas and not about codex packaging.  In trying to define what a book is and is not, Young imagines a new “book ecosystem” in which the previously complex analog communication circuit turns into unlimited one-on-one digital relationships connecting readers and writers.

Mark Moss’s Toward the Visualization of History contextualizes books as conveyors of historical meaning in an evolving communication model that progresses from oral to textual to visual, concluding that electronic media have displaced books as the primary shaper of the “public imagination.”  Moss ultimately asserts that media literacy is now as important as reading.

Neither customization nor the one-on-one connection of readers and writers is new with digitization: for analog examples, think of marginal notes in books and handwritten personal letters, forms already within the scope of book history.  Just exactly how the digital life history of either might be documented for retelling, however, is sometimes difficult to conceive.  Will these new model digital books include “track changes” and other archival capacities?  Their economic model is also challenging: what is the value of anything that can be completely customized or that merges author and reader?

Opposite Gomez and his Print Is Dead are critics who seem to see only loss.  Chief among these is Nicholas A. Basbanes, whose elegiac and lyrical A Splendor of Letters offers an anecdotal exploration of lost and found written records and of permanence and impermanence.  Writing about all writing as sacred, from cave drawings to the “most fleeting of all, a finger run across a fogged glass window,” Basbanes looks at books as vehicles for bridging distances created by time and culture.  He describes not so much the future of printed books as what the future would be like without them.

Seeming to take change more personally, Stan Persky’s Reading the 21st Century argues that “cultural catastrophe” awaits the West because of book reading’s decline.  Persky sees a “paradoxical dilemma” in the fact that there is now more writing but less reading, ultimately questioning the capacity of a predominantly digital culture to transmit sufficient historical memory and the critical discussion and reflection that he feels are needed to support a democratic society.  For Persky, the crisis is about less reading of what is being reviewed or identified as great literature.

Perhaps most interesting are apologists who do not seem to regard print’s present and future to be so significantly different from its past as to merit concern.  Umberto Eco immediately dismisses the possibility of print’s extinction in his conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière in This Is Not the End of the Book.  Eco’s point is that the printed book is perfect for its function: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel.”  As earlier pointed out by Lyons, Eco argues that the codex’s technological simplicity makes it timeless.  While Eco and film maker Carrière describe digital technologies as valuable tools for producing books, their best point may be that no technologies—neither ancient nor modern—can guarantee permanence, but perhaps the printed book has proved to be the best invention to date for the purpose.

Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books offers a similarly fundamental and optimistic alternative approach to thinking about print’s place in the present and future.  Zaid takes the book back to any communication model’s starting point: authors’ ideas, not publishers and readers.  The need to write, what Zaid refers to as “our universal graphomania,” is a human condition.  Books need to be written and published, not necessarily to be sold nor even read.  Echoing Epstein and Schiffrin, Zaid describes publishing in its purest form, functioning best as an industry of many small cottages, each with low economic overhead and thresholds that guarantee the proliferation and variety of affordable titles.  Neither Greco nor even Gutenberg would recognize this idealized industry.

Finally, Miha Kovač’s Never Mind the Web rejects Gomez’s e-book model that merges authors and readers.  Any successful digital alternative to print, Kovač says, must be a product that Gomez’s authors-readers will buy.  Kovač identifies a societal need for textual fixity and authority that is at odds with the customization and anonymity of Gomez’s model, concluding that “if there were no printed book, the Internet civilization would simply have to invent it.”

Others in this middle ground between print and digital try mainly to make sense of publishing’s evolution.  Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay’s A Book of the Book is an edited collection of mostly previously published works about what the book means and has meant to more than ninety contributing writers.  Likewise, When Books Die, edited by Finlay Lloyd and Patricia Anderson, collects personal comments of Australian writers and others on the significance of books and reading.  The Late American Novel, edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, collects pieces by twenty-five writers on the prospects for the codex format, printed books, fiction, literature, authorship, and writing in general.  Most contributors assert that, above all, each of these forms, being about communicating ideas, will evolve along with e-books and other forms of communication.

Recognizing that what has not yet killed books will likely only help to make more of them, most book historians also occupy the middle ground.  In The Case for Books, Robert Darnton reprints several of his previously published writings, including his influential “What Is the History of the Book?” with its communication circuit model.  Darnton’s evolutionary perspective is also exploratory in its interest in aligning the capacities of print and digital.

Likewise, Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print tries to show the complementarity of print and electronic media.  Literary reading may be in decline, Striphas observes, but the synergetic relationship of books and other media is self-sustaining and healthy.  Meanwhile, Bill Cope and Angus Phillips’s The Future of the Book in the Digital Age collects contributed essays that point out that new technologies will enhance print’s value rather than eclipse it.

David Pearson’s Books as History more specifically focuses on the book as just another piece of communication’s “equipment.”  Pearson separates books’ materiality from their texts to emphasize the format’s impact on the message.  Pearson argues that e-books will not fully participate in the communication circuit until they can provide copy-specific evidence of ownership, readership, and the reception, generation, and communication of ideas just like printed books.  This is core to telling a book’s life history.  The many advantages that printed books have afforded users are, Pearson concludes, the basic requirements for digital formats and what may develop beyond them.

Echoing Pearson’s conclusion, Consuming Books, edited by Stephen Brown, collects sixteen essays that emphasize that the book’s future will reflect what has made it a success in the past.  Contributors see “literature,” broadly defined, as part of the modern “Entertainment Economy.”  Marketing books via media convergence is a proven winner.

Works Cited