A LOT of ink has been spilled on the supposed death of the printed word. Ebooks are outselling paper books. Newspapers are dying. “Phone books are already dead,” said James Reid-Cunningham of the Boston Athenaeum library at a conference called Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in May. “The days of the codex as the primary carrier of information are almost over.”
This has inspired a lot of hand-wringing from publishers, librarians, archivists – and me, a writer and lifelong bibliophile who grew up surrounded by paper books. I’ve been blogging since high school, I’m addicted to my smartphone and, in theory, I should be on board with the digital revolution – but when people mourn the loss of paper books, I sympathise.
Are printed books really going the way of the dodo? And what would we lose if they did?
Reid-Cunningham thinks the rumours of the printed word’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Printed books will live on as art objects and collector’s items, he argues, like vinyl records and daguerreotypes. People may start buying all their beach novels and periodicals in ebook formats, and curating their physical bookshelves more carefully. It is not about technology, he says, it is about people.
“As long as there are people who care about books and don’t know why, there will be books,” he says. “It’s that simple.”
Reid-Cunningham was trained as a bookbinder, and uses traditional techniques to make book-based art. Other artists are blending print with technology. Between Page and Screen by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse is a paper book that can be read only on a computer. Instead of words, every page has a geometric pattern. If you hold a printed page up to a webcam, while visiting the book’s related website, your screen displays the text of the story streaming, spinning and leaping off the page.
Printed books may need to become more multifaceted, incorporating video, music and interactivity. A group at the MIT Media Lab already builds electronic pop-up books with glowing LEDs that brighten and dim as you pull paper tabs, and authors have been experimenting with “augmented reality” books for years. The lines between print and digital books are blurring, and interesting things are happening at the interface.
Beyond the page, ebooks may someday transform how we read. We are used to being alone with our thoughts inside a book, but what if we could invite friends or favourite authors to join in? A web tool called SocialBook offers a way to make the experience of reading more collaborative. Readers highlight and comment on text, and can see and respond to comments that others have left in the same book.
“When you put text into a dynamic network, a book becomes a place where readers and sometimes authors can congregate in the margin,” said Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, a think tank in New York. Stein showed how a high-school class is using SocialBook to read and discuss Don Quixote, how an author could use it to connect with readers, and how he and his collaborators have started using it instead of email. Readers can open their books to anyone they want, from close friends to intellectual heroes.
“For us, social is not a pizza topping. It’s not an add-on,” Stein says. “It’s the foundational cornerstone of reading and writing going forth into the future.”
The tools might be new, but the goal of SocialBook is not. Books have always found ways to be nodes of human connection. A friend on the other side of the US once gave me a copy of a book he loved, that he had carefully annotated on every page. Reading it was like meeting him for coffee. Finding a used book with a stranger’s notes in the margins is unfailingly delightful. The MIT Rare Books collection has kept a copy of John Stuart Mill’s 1848 book Principles of Political Economy, not for its content, but for the lines and lines of tiny notes a passionate but unknown reader scrawled in the margins. Maybe ebooks are taking us where print was trying to go all along.