The Future of the Book

It occurred to us upon considering the downward sales trajectory of cassette tapes, and then VHS tapes and then CD’s in our store, East Village Books, that books might at some future time be headed down that same path. Why wouldn’t they, this earliest form of mass media?

When CD’s hit the market they hit the shelves at Tower Record at full blast. CD’s seemed (it was a new technology, after all) to be a superior product compared to tapes and LP’s, especially after the engineers were able to crowd more and more digital sound onto the discs. Once our ears forgot analog sound (tape hiss aside, record clicks aside) it was only a matter of time before cassette tapes would become history. For the most part this came to pass (LP’s are a curiosity and have managed to hold on in a specialty market, say like illuminated manuscripts, maybe).

In 2015 we still have a relatively good market for CD’s, even though downloading took their place, and streaming moreso. CD’s are hanging on for a number of reasons. One is all that digital information that the engineers managed to squeeze onto the plastic. Another reason is that people like the physical object (LP’s moreso). And there are people, especially among the elderly, who are just not comfortable with computers and may never be. We imagine that DVD’s will follow in due time, with better access to streaming and more online availability.

All of this so far is fairly intuitive. It is just the way that the transition went down in our store. The real fascinating question, however, is what is the trajectory for the printed word, especially books (since we are seeing which direction magazines are headed). Let’s take magazines out of parentheses, because this is something that is difficult to understand. From a design standpoint magazines are one of the wonders of the world. The quality of the paper is slick and amazing. The picture quality is amazing. The stories are often thought provoking, concise and well edited. Who would not want to hold a magazine in their hands? Indeed, like LP records, this appears to be becoming a specialty market aimed at those with the love of the feel and the cash and the time.

Time. A particular kind of time. There is a book called “The End of Absence,” by Michael Harris that we would highly recommend if you are interested in this “time” and how it fits in with the human both historically and evolutionarily. The author discusses how our transitional phase (to digital) is every bit as revolutionary as the shift to moveable type/mass print with the same upheaval in society and power–and that those over 30 are the last people who will ever remember what it was like to have time for reflection and looking out the window instead of hunched over with our thumbs going. And this is nothing. Ray Kurtzweil started predicting years ago about the approaching singularity of man and digital machine, when we will have a non-biological brain. By the middle of the century, at least the way that Kurtzweil looks at it, there will not only be no time for reflection, but no need.

Where will the book be, then? Where will the book be even if we do not merge with machine, but manage instead to scrap together a roughly human existence in the midst of a digital world? Will people still go into book stores (probably not new book stores, as the business model is incompatible with the way people shop, but any store that sells books) and ask for a text that a single person wrote and a single person edited that so neatly puts into one place the ideas either imaginative or painstakingly sourced or both–an elaborative opinion, maybe–a book that is fact-checked left and right or where one, the editor, turned to the other, the author, and said, “Do you really think that Mary would write off her dad for such a seemingly minor infraction as that?”

Projecting X number of years into the future there are two questions that need to be struggled with to predict the future of the book. One is will we have the need for thoroughness (i.e. editing) to be in one neat place when we can go to our machines or machine brains and cobble it all together? And the other is who will we be that will even need (want) thoroughness, whether it be of object or emotion? Those of us who love books today, and the way they feel in our hands and what it means to have that sort of connection, will we be around when that time comes? Or will it be as Michael Harris posits that there will be a time that will come to humankind when our lives are so completed by digital connection that we will have no desire (we will have the need–we are human after all) nor the time to sit back and do nothing but reflect, whether that is looking out the window or communing with the ideas of that single author and her editor?

We are human after all. We grew up over the ages with books. We were wanting them even before they existed. We just did not know that, because the mass of us were struggling for survival–instead, the Catholic Church had its scribes working full time in order to create the manuscripts that would remain in the hands of the Church, along with the power of knowledge. We were thirsting for democratic knowledge, we just did not know what it was until the first books came out. And the love affair was born. Watch Fahrenheit 451, again if you have already seen it. Look at that final scene where the colony whose book people are each memorizing a book so that it is passed to their children and to the future. You cannot go away from that scene without being moved, without that movement being felt deep in your brain.

So it’s paper and ink and cloth, you say, and you can get the same experience on a tablet (We have not once said “book, not tablet”). Or you can someday have the information piped digitally into your head. Maybe it will even be those same words that were once on the paper. And you go on. There may be a virtual reality experience of the book opening and closing. You could read or “read” one passage and look off into space reflectively, even if that space is a different screen or whatever else we are looking at when that time comes…Or it might be real space, because after all, the world is real and will be real then. Maybe you can grasp the edge of the desk, if you want the tangible experience of something. Why does it have to be cloth and ink and paper?

The way we are evolving headlong into uncharted Kurtzwelian terrain it is certain that there will be many people, probably a large majority that will be going along willingly. There are many carrots, financial, social, “social” and otherwise. Probably the biggest carrot is because everyone else seems to be chasing the same carrot; there is too much of sad human past to think that it would be otherwise. And everyone will be going along. Right? Not right.

If you made it this far we assume you are continuing to read our essay because you are passionate about the printed word, and specifically about the book. You have not gotten rid of all of your books other than for reasons of economy, space or because you have wanted to replace them with yet others. You still manage to sneak that book into your purse or bag, and you pull it out because you want to. Maybe that screen got to you at last, or maybe you don’t really like it after all. Maybe you think it a waste of your time, the same way you have always felt about television. And those comments you made on Facebook came back to haunt you for the simple reason that contextually they were taken wrong by a person who could not see your face or read your body language. And it made you feel bad the way that a book could never make you feel. Whatever reason, you do not want to look at that screen. You only want to read. Really read. And feel that cloth and paper the way that no app can take you away.

Then there will always be some of us. And we will want the stores to go inside where we can search through the borgesian number of subjects and find the book that belongs to us at that moment. We will be confident that the editors prodded the authors and the authors rewrote and rewrote until the book “took on a life of its own.” And the characters within walk and think and communicate with each other, just like they do in a real world without machines and strangers “liking” what they do. And who knows–maybe one of those books will be an accurate futuristic scientific novel that depicts a society of rebels that fought the information age police and ended up on some star where people can read for pleasure any time they want. There will be discussion groups where people argue over what the books mean and what they mean to them. And there will be printing presses and new ideas that are edited and rewritten and edited, perhaps forever, until things can be gotten just right.

This excerpt from Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner explains in the grandest terms why mankind writes:

“Read it if you like or don’t read it if you like. Because you make so little impression, you see. You get born and you try this and you don’t know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with string only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they don’t know why either except that the strings are all in one another’s way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it can’t matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better, and yet it must matter because you keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over and all you have left is a block of stone with scratches on it provided there was someone to remember to have the marble scratched and set up or had time to, and it rains on it and then sun shines on it and after a while they don’t even remember the name and what the scratches were trying to tell, and it doesn’t matter. And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something-a scrap of paper-something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that was once for the reason that it can die someday, while the block of stone can’t be is because it never can become was because it can’t ever die or perish…”