I recently attended two lectures on the future of the book. This topic is close to me for two reasons : first I am an active reader and collector of books and second my original background in design was in book publishing. There is over 500 years of history of the codex using movable type and over 2000 years for the book, which was developed in ancient Rome. There is so much pattern, established behavior and supply chains, that the printed book is still an archetype for a carrier of knowledge.
Anthony Grafton from Princeton gave a lecture during the Chicago Humanities Festival. He views books not just as a holder of texts, but as objects with a rich materiality. He credits books with creating trading zones through cafe culture that brought people together to discuss what books contained and expanded knowledge. He also commented on the role of libraries as serving a similar function and the challenges to the meaning and use of contemporary libraries. Take for example the new plan for the New York Public Library where they will move many books to a warehouse in New Jersey and place more computers and meeting spaces in the main library building.
Grafton’s view on the current trend to digitalization of information and new printing technologies has created new niches for the book. For example, the Espresso Book Machine, which is a print-on-demand machine can publish out of print books printed and bound in about 20 minutes. Now with new ways to write, edit, print and distribute books, authors can self-publish and create markets based on their reputation without the need for a publisher.
Grafton ended up discussing the role of reading, and reading habits. There are different types of reading – for research, for quiet time, or for information and scanning. The dynamics of reading from Grafton’s perspective can be served by physical books, ebooks and screens. He does not subscribe to the view that the book is dying, but has observed that the quality of writing and curatorial dimensions to content development is uneven.
In another lecture I attended about the rise of e-readers by Nicholas Carr at the Newberry Library, Carr’s thesis was diametrically opposed to Graftons. He has published books such as The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr is concerned about the degradation of the act of reading defined over 500 years of book use, and the introduction of new interactive features and functions of multi-use tablet computers like the Amazon Fire.
Carr believes that e-readers are destroying the act and meaning of reading. 2000 years of stability is being violently disrupted by e-readers and that since the Kindle was released five years ago, now 20% of all book purchases are e-books. He discussed how e-books are emulating the physical book as every new medium imitates the old medium it is replacing.
Carr’s thesis is that the intellectual dimensions of knowledge is radically being changed and that our ethic of reading is being degraded and quickly affecting our brains. He feels the printed book is a shield against distraction and allows us to be in quiet for a deeper type of reflection due to the printed book’s main role – which is the intimate printed page as a sensory experience.
The structure and dissemination of information is always in flux and the dynamics of how this information is consumed is also in flux.
Printed books have been stable from a production standpoint, but their distribution and availability have been continually changing. We have a Kindle and there was a learning curve to use this platform. Having an integrated dictionary is most helpful to understand words as you read the text; having multi-font capability; having an ability to annotate particular passages is also convenient. Being able to read a book on a smart phone/tablet and a dedicated e-reader – all synchronized with one another is also convenient. Yet, when we want we turn off the wireless and can just read the book as a book.
Reflecting on the two lectures, I did not find Nicholas Carr’s thesis mature or a compelling argument against the rise of digital books. His arguments were grounded in fear and a thin polemic. Yes e-readers are changing the meaning of reading and how content is structured and delivered to people who read. Yes, content is moving from static written words, to hyperlinks, images, sound and video as a more immersive experience.
Grafton’s thesis in contrast is a much more mature and reasonable position that values the history and meaning of books and reading, but also recognizes the shift to digital content as not a threat, but as a progression of the structure and dissemination of content. He believes that reading in all forms is the most important thing we can do and leaves the either-or thesis that Carr seems to embrace behind.