Friday, March 20, 2009

Future of the book

Still skeptical that the digital book will replace the codex, Nige wonders whether, unlike musical selections, there is “something special about books that will preserve them far longer than other media as ‘something you own.’ I’m fairly sure there is,” he suggests, “but it’s hard to say—especially in the light of such innovations as Kindle—quite what it is. Is it just their satisfying tactile qualities? The fact that you can use a physical book in a three-dimensional way—up, down and through—that can’t really be reproduced?”

Although I appear to be more excited than Nige about the digitizing of books (as the new motto has it, “Search Is Everything,” and digital texts are more easily searched than print), I am also skeptical that the codex will disappear entirely. Elsewhere in this Commonplace Blog, I have posited a distinction between books that are “needed for practical activities,” and for which a wireless reading device like the Kindle is perfect, and books that are “collected, treasured, preserved from destruction”; and in light of this distinction, I argued that ereaders “will not entirely replace ‘paper-and-binding’ books, because not all books are meant only to be used.” Even later I held that the irreplaceable tactile qualities of some children’s books make them unlikely candidates for digitization.

Nige obliged me to go back and examine my reading habits, though. And two things immediately struck me. First, the availability of digital texts has not only made it far easier to acquire them, but increases the chances that you will do so. Last Sunday, a dinner guest told me that he had found the title of a dissertation that was smack on the subject of his son’s senior-year high-school research paper. I flew to the computer, accessed my university library database, and obtained a .pdf copy of it for him. The whole transaction took maybe five minutes. Similarly, while researching my Commentary piece on Charles McCarry, I learned that Henry Cabot Lodge’s father had been a poet—George Cabot Lodge. Within minutes I found a Google-books copy of his Poems, 1899–1902 and downloaded it. I never would have invested in Lodge’s Poems otherwise, and probably would not even have taken the trouble to hunt them down.

But then there is the other side of the story. The months that I spent in research on The Elephants Teach were among the most enjoyable and memorable of my life. I remember sitting cross-legged between the stacks, doggedly reading my way through the entire print runs of the Educational Review, the English Journal, the School Review, the Bookman, and other old journals. Not only did I find things that I otherwise would not have, were I to have relied on a computerized search algorithm. But because I found my “search terms” by reading them in context, they were not isolated ideas, which formed a sort of universal Oversoul quite independent of how their authors used them. In reviewing The Elephants Teach, Grudin commented on this quality of the book:

Many of these people and their writings are trailing into oblivion—ploughed under, in effect, by the very machinery that they set in motion. Thanks to Myers’s considerate presentation, these almost-forgotten people speak to us with a renewed eloquence, providing insightful responses to issues that will not die.I do not quote this to congratulate myself. (Well, not only to congratulate myself.) I have always been grateful to Grudin for noticing this quality of my book, which was the direct result of my research methods—methods, alas, which few scholars will imitate in a dictatorship of etexts.

The future of the book, though, may be out of writers’ and readers’ hands. Michael Malone, a prominent journalist who covers Silicon Valley, believes that the war over digital books will be one of the engines of the economy after its recovery. He argues that Google and Amazon have already divided the universe of print between them. Google snaps up every book when its copyright lapses, while Amazon aims to offer every newly published book in a Kindle-friendly format. “This means that, essentially, Amazon now controls the world’s new ideas,” Malone writes, “while Sony [which has entered into a deal to make Google’s books available on its Reader e-Book] owns Mankind’s memory.”

I remain skeptical, because I am old enough to remember the enthusiasm for other new technologies that were going to replace print—surely you remember microfiche—but then I don’t even own an iPod or a smart phone.