Many books, Manuel Arias Maldonadas writes, in an article first published in Letras Libres (published in Mexico and Spain) and translated and republished by the website Eurozine (eurozine.com), have recently been written on the future of the book. But the inescapable reality is that we do not know much about the future of the book: it is in the future.
On the well-rehearsed arguments over the relative merits of the electronic and paper formats (and the possibility of the former seeing off the latter), Maldonadas has this to say:
Once again, it’s not much use speaking of books without making further distinctions, because a travel book has a different purpose from a book of poetry, a manual of macroeconomics or a guide to German grammar. Technological contrivances make more sense for some than for others. As to the difference between the paper book and the electronic one, we have already mentioned earlier that sensuous aspects are a significant matter for the reader accustomed to the former: its smell, response to the touch, its quality as a fetish. There are also other aspects of the book-object that are connected to its use, such as … its physical size, the ease with which the reader can go from one page to another or underline things and take notes. It is hard to know, nevertheless, whether we are attached to these characteristics out of habit or because of their inherent value; and, therefore, whether the electronic book really amounts to less than the book on paper and, if so, why.
Theodor Adorno, severe as only he could be, lamented the appearance of the paperback because of the effect it would have on the content of books and their institutional status. He feared that a symbolic devaluation would collapse the distinction between mass culture and the higher realms of knowledge. From this point of view, digitalization would be a further reinforcement of the technological reproducibility of art, with reference to the famous essay by Walter Benjamin on the loss of the “aura” possessed by original works of art in modernity. Remarkably, the paper book could be the vessel that is charged with conserving this aura in a future dominated by electronic books, in a similar way to the manner in which the reappearance of vinyl records gratifies the nostalgia of music lovers. Some people also still send postcards! We would find ourselves then with an object that is considered valuable, irrespective of its practical function, valuable, that is, more for aesthetic reasons than cognitive ones. Michael Agresta has referred to this possibility in the pages of Slate: “As it loses its traditional value as an efficient vessel for text, the paper book’s other qualities – from its role in literary history to its inimitable design possibilities to its potential for physical beauty – will take on more importance.” This aura, though, will be for those who can and want to pay for it; for everyone else, there will be the digital book. However, this still remains a distant prospect, for the world is full of paper books: they will not disappear tomorrow.
Pace Michael Agresta, the paper book has not as yet begun to lose its value as an efficient vessel for text, and it is hard to see how it will except in the oft-cited and rather thin case of books we wish to bring on holiday, where the key factors are weight, and O’Leary. But there is a simple answer to this too: bring fewer books on holiday; you’ll probably spend all your time on the beach and won’t read them anyway (unless you’re holidaying in the west of Ireland).
Discourses which examine the future of the book largely from a technological perspective, the perspective of “have you seen what they can do now?” (this is most of them) or an ideological one (a dispute over where our culture is going between cheerful, realistic adapters and grumpy, defeated “automatic conservatives”) tend to neglect the importance of the economic factor. Certainly there is a hint in Michael Agresta’s comments that the book may become a rarer, and costlier, artefact. This is only common sense: if the breakdown in the sales of a relatively popular title are 35 per cent electronic and 65 per cent paper, then the paper edition may perhaps be printed in an edition of five thousand and priced at €16.95. If the percentages are reversed we should expect the print run of the paper book to be much smaller and its price, consequently, to be much higher. And what will happen to sales, and to bookshops which depend on sales, if the market (you, dear reader) refuses the fence on encountering a paper book which used to be €16.95 two years ago but it now €29.95?
Maldonadas refers to one of the most widely read popular books on this subject, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2011), which “expresses an intuition that is perhaps widely shared: that the way one reads on digital devices, characterized by rapid skimming, the activation of hyperlinks and multi-tasking, is undermining the in-depth and sustained attention that for centuries has defined the culture of the book”. “And, “if this is in danger,” Carr argues, “so too, potentially, is the culture that has flourished around it”.
Maldonadas’s essay could perhaps even partially itself be seen as a symptom of the development that Carr is referring to in so far as it buzzes continually from question to question without, it seems, very often having the patience to stop awhile to harry out an answer. But they are good questions, and ones which will be with us for a while.