The book is dead?

18Apr08

Despite my expectations, I found Sherman Young’s argument that the book, as we know it, is dead, rather persuasive. I was particularly interested by the idea that “the object of the book is not fixed and has always been evolving”. In fact, the chapter forced me to reconsider my initial reaction to the statement “the book is dead”, which, to be perfectly frank, was horror. I could barely imagine anything more frightening than a world in which books had been abandoned.

But are we already living in such a world? Young claims that we are. Even if no-one is burning books, hardly anyone is reading them, and although book sales are still high, he says that the industry has traded ‘real’ books for “fast-buck shifting of product”. I am familiar with the argument that we, as readers, have abandoned the book for less time consuming forms of entertainment, but I had not considered that the book market could be killing the book as well. Despite this bleak picture, Young does not see the death of the book as a bad thing.

In his book, Young qualifies his brutal catch-cry by suggesting that the replacement of the book is a necessary and inevitable step to ensure its survival. He hopes that new technologies will provide greater access to books, and allow what is inside books to become more valued. He even suggests that, in recent times, the important function of the book has been hijacked by the book as an object, to be marketed and sold. He believes that e-books have the potential to reclaim the essence of the book from the hands of publishers. Readers will not only have access to more books, but the internet can provide them the opportunity to engage with authors and other readers. Young claims that ideas should be more important than items.

Even with dwindling opportunities to do so, I still like to read. Not many people will disagree that having access to unfamiliar stories and ideas can not only take readers to new places, but also enrich their experience of the world. Young’s argument forced me to question whether this experience truly has anything to do with the actually physical object of the book. I’m sure many booklovers would find themselves reticent to let go of the paper book, and I feel the same. However, I am compelled to admit that this is largely an issue of sentimental value. There appears to be no practical reason why an e-book should be less effective than a paper book, and yet paper books have always played such a huge part of our intellectual experience and growth that to suggest that they could be obsolete seems preposterous.

When I considered the idea more carefully, I realised that I have already implicated myself in this seemingly criminal coup. After all, what do I do when I access the library’s online resources but pave the way for the paper book’s eventual demise? I am still enlightened and inspired by what I read online. I still appreciate the ideas presented. I don’t have to reserve the book for weeks, or carry it around campus. Aside from issues of practicality, the ecological significance of electronic media cannot be understated. It seems a crime in itself to consider rejecting emerging technologies on sentimental grounds, when adopting them could easily save millions of trees.

I doubt that the paper book will ever disappear entirely. Like trips to the cinema, CD collections and even old records, outmoded mediums will always be something of a novelty. I believe that this will be especially true for the paper book, not simply because of its historical importance, but also because of the sensory thrill, the material excitement that comes from holding a book in your hand. Similarly, the visual pleasure of cover art should not be dismissed. My prediction is that the paper book will remain an art form in itself.

The possibility of perpetuating and even increasing the popularity of the book medium by adapting it to modern technologies presents an overwhelmingly positive opportunity. To deny this would be to deny potential readers exposure to new ideas and stories. As Young argues, our greatest task is to keep the function of the book alive.

I welcome the evolution of the book.   

Mike Shatzkin presents his predictions for publishing in 2008 in Publisher’s Weekly.

Blogs discussing the death of the book can be found here.

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