Submitted by: The Two Sides Team December 16, 2011
Real books don’t die, insists Marc Shultz in the 9 December issue of Publishers’ Weekly.
This week, the story in The Canadian Press, in The Independent, in The Guardian, and, of course, in The New York Times, is that, in order to survive, the printed book must distinguish itself as an attractive alternative to e-books through the dark arts of book design. The Times quotes Robert S. Miller, publisher of Workman Press, as saying When people do beautiful books, theyre noticed more. Its like sending a thank-you note written on nice paper when were in an era of e-mail correspondence.
And thats pretty much the entire thrust of these stories. In the Times
piece, it largely comes down to flashier book coversmore special effects equals more print salesusing examples like Haruki Murakamis 1Q84
(its got a semi-transparent jacket) and Stephen Kings 11/22/63
(its got a textured jacket, about which PW
did its own story
) and Jay-Zs Decoded
(which has a shiny gold design on the cover). Oh, and Madeline Millers The Song of Achilles
will bear an embossed helmet sculpted with punctures, cracks and texture, giving the image a 3-D effect.
From what I can tell, none of these effects are particularly special. Weve seen them all before, and for years. (Cant wait for them to revive strategically-placed holes in the book cover, revealingradically!a covetous stretch of rich, pearlescent endpaper.) And obviously, high-quality book design is about more than creating a flashy or intricate cover. But Im not here to argue against high-quality book designfor that, Ill turn to author and columnist Dan Agin. He responded to the Times
story with a diatribe in The Huffington Post
, in which he has this to say about the book as an object
Never mind the words, never mind the content, never mind any literary art, never mind the ideasit’s an object, buster. The editors, salespeople, publicity people, booksellersno one needs to actually read anything anymore (if they read anything at all). Just sell the damn cover!
Agin goes on to say how the focus is indicative of the technophobic English majors in New York book publishing, who probably only got the position because of who they know, and who also refuse to line-edit or fact-check because their highest priority is marketability. He further implies that these publishing execs are delusional if they think consumers are going to keep buying booksso bulky, so many spelling errors!when they have the efficient and affordable option of weightless, easy-to-update e-books.
Well, that dont wash with me either. Entire industries and political dynasties have thrived while betting against peoples willingness to pick efficiency or effectiveness over plain old desire. People dont want whats best for them: people want what they like. And people like booksespecially well-made, suitable-for-display books that they can either keep for decades or graciously pass on to a loved one. (To be fair, they also like trashy mass market paperbacks suitable for leaving behind when disembarking the plane.)
Agin counters the people like books argument by pointing out (in the comments, replying to one of the many commenters who disagree with him) that people also liked the horse-and-buggy, even when it was obvious that the automobile was taking over. But thats just one wavelength in a wide spectrum of American-style transportation ennui, a spectrum with room for the classic car fetishist, the muscle-car home mechanic, the steam engine romantic, and the ever-more-ubiquitous bicycle riderall of whom can find their favorite mode of transport still in use, in however limited a context. Besides which, the automobile marks a clear step forward in transportation technology: though perhaps less charming, the automobile was clearly superior to the horse-and-buggy where it counts: speed. In what way are e-books superior to the pulp-and-print version? Sure, you can get them in your hands faster and carry a bunch of them around easier, but ease-of-acquisition and transportation-in-bulk are not major features of the reading experience. (Mysteriously, Agin also takes issue with the phrase reading experience, though he doesnt go quite so far as to give it the reading as experience formulation.)
In other forums, e-book advocates (and pessimistic print-book advocates) have pointed to the implosion of the record industry as the likely model for the book industrys future. But thats another false comparison. To a layperson, the music industrys productthat is, the songis indistinguishable across different formats: since its the same sounds going into your ear in almost exactly the same way, the content of a vinyl record or a cassette tape or a CD can be easily reduced to the sounds recorded on it. The same just cant be said of the written word: not only is the difference between a hand-held screen and bound, printed matter something thats immediate, tangible, and emphatic, but those advocating for e-book superiority make the false assumption that a books content can also be reduced to whats recorded in it. For most people, it cant.
We all know someone who gets wistful for the smell of booksand yes, it may be us. Though its easy to disregard this as affectation, the stubborn persistence of that wist (wist?) is a clear illustration of the fact that, for many, the content of a book includes a set of sensual and historical qualities that cant be reduced to the text recorded inside, or improved upon significantly by the current technology.
In fact, its hard to imagine a technology emerging that would displace the book as the most convenient and well-loved method for consuming long strings of text. Though youve probably seen it before elsewhere (probably in a great 2010 blog post by Ryan Britt on Tor.com
about, well, the exact same issue), its worth quoting from Isaac Asimovs 1989 speech to the American Booksellers Association, when he asked his audience to imagine a device that “can go anywhere, and is totally portable. Something that can be started and stopped at will along its data stream, allowing the user to access the information in an effective, easy manner, and will require no electric energy to operate. We have this device. Its called the book. It will never be surpassed because it represents the minimum technology with the maximum interaction you can have.
As of now, the oldest print books yet discoveredwhich well define here as words etched on a paper-like mediuminclude 3,000-year-old Egyptian papyrus scrolls; a six-page, 2,500-year-old Etruscan book made of gold; and the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scroll dated 868. Shouldnt it be obvious by now? Print books will be around long after human beings and their e-readers have run out of energy. Print books arent dyingin fact, theyll probably outlive us all.