Mourning the Late Great Book
This article originally appeared in Issue# 31
Is computerization is making the book an endangered species?
Whither the book?
- In the future, a book may be bought as a bubble-wrapped package containing a dust jacket together with a computer chip from which a reader prints out the text at home.
- Publishers may not stock inventory but print books as customers order them.
- Information will be acquired rapidly from computerized data banks, but literature and poetry will remain in printed form.
- A distinction may have to be made between literature in book form and information in book form.
These conclusions about the future of books and information are just a few of the diverse opinions voiced by various experts in a report by the Aspen Institute on a conference on the future of books in the electronic era.The discussion took place under the auspices of the Jerusalem International Book Fair. The eminent scholars, publishers and educators gathered among that ageless city's ancient stones were pondering the question "Will the book survive?"
According to the report, the conclusion of most speakers was basically "I hope so." Otherwise, the only agreement was a general feeling that massive changes are in prospect in the way our society stores and absorbs information.
As I read the report, I realized that they were having difficulty planning for a possibly bookless future because, like me, they had difficulty imagining a world in which printed matter was not the major tool for assimilating ideas. Since books have been the major means of storing knowledge for centuries, this is not too surprising.
We may be heading toward a time when reading print is strictly a leisure option.
Most readers understand that Gutenberg's invention of printing led to the wide dissemination of information by bringing the cost of books and newspapers within the reach of the average citizen. But most of us have probably given little thought to the book as a format for conveying thought or imagination.
Consider what happens when you pick up a book. Perhaps you took at the title page, sample a few paragraphs, read the ending.
In computer jargon, the object you are holding, with detached and numbered pages, any one of which can be turned to and read instantly, is a model of "accessible information."
That wasn't always the case. To begin with, books were scarce partly because they were expensive to copy. But for a long time they were also extremely cumbersome to read.
Anyone who has watched the process necessary to read a scroll (the traditional periodic readings of the Torah in Jewish synagogues comes to mind) understands that the unwinding of the parchment, the search for the right place, the slow rewinding, is an unwieldy business. We honor Gutenberg. But the inventor of the PAGE, lost somewhere in the mists of history, also deserves a lot of credit.
In fact, part of the adjustment to the use of a computerized information system might be called a form of page deprivation. You can't reach into a computer and pick out the information you need. You have to learn to withdraw it by using the cues, menus and options the programmer or your own personal data entry system created.
Wherever I am, I want to hear the sound of pages turning.
However, once you access printed information, the process of absorbing it is very similar, as long as you are reading. But what if, instead, you are viewing a video presentation? Rather than working with language, your mind is absorbing pictures. The image is concrete instead of being a vague outline that you fill in the recesses of your imagination.
Book fair speakers were also concerned about this difference. One of them, Martin Levin, president of the Times Mirror Book Group, compared this era to the period of transition that overtook the art world after the invention of the camera. To start with, little changed. But eventually, artists became aware that painting had been freed from the need to be primarily representational. A whole wave of abstract art expression resulted. If this is the analogy, is video in a sense the new Cubism?
Another serious question is the issue of who can afford and who wants information. At the moment, computer databases require some training and a relatively expensive system to own. Costs are coming down all the time, but the intelligent use of any system also requires knowing what to look for. It certainly would not be in the best interest of a democratic society to have knowledge available only to a tiny minority — because they are the only ones who care whether it's there or not. A few scholars may have kept knowledge alive in monasteries during the Middle Ages — but the era was also called the "Dark Ages."
In fact, we may be heading toward a world where reading is a leisure option like jazz music or poetry writing. In the future, it may be that only the language-oriented will be interested in the kind of interaction between author, words and audience it entails. If the information crucial to society's survival reaches the public in some other form — pictures, charts or even direct stimulation of brain waves — this may not matter.
But I hope the book as a format survives, at least for a while. Wherever I am, I want to hear the sound of pages turning.