Books are spiritual, but …

Some interesting thoughts from James Gleick How to Publish Without Perishing in today’s New York Times

For some kinds of books, the writing is on the wall. Encyclopedias are finished. All encyclopedias combined, including the redoubtable Britannica, have already been surpassed by the exercise in groupthink known as Wikipedia. Basic dictionaries no longer belong on paper; the greatest, the Oxford English Dictionary, has nimbly remade itself in cyberspace, where it has doubled in size and grown more timely and usable than ever. And those hefty objects called “telephone books”? As antiquated as typewriters. The book has had a long life as the world’s pre-eminent device for the storage and retrieval of knowledge, but that may be ending, where the physical object is concerned.

I entirely agree with this assessment. I would add text books and most scholarly works to Gleick’s list of “device[s] for the storage and retrieval [and transmission] of knowledge”. But…More...I think Gleick is a bit of a Romantic when it comes to other kinds of books. He concludes with this thought:

What should an old-fashioned book publisher do with this gift? Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. Don’t aim for instant blockbuster successes. You won’t win on quick distribution, and you won’t win on price. Cyberspace has that covered. Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.

Gleick is here reflecting on the implications of Google’s historic agreement with authors and publishers that will allow the scanning and digitizing of virtually all the books in the world. The settlement allows authors, and publishers and Google to profit from the online storage and distribution of books, including those currently protected by copyright many of which are out-of-print. Google will put up $125 million to establish a digital book registry to administer the system.

The agreement represents a huge step forward in allowing widespread access to knowledge and information while enabling authors and publishers to be compensated for their work and exert control over how it is distributed:

The deal goes some way toward drawing a road map for a possible digital future for publishers and authors, who worried that they were losing control over how their works were used online, as the music industry has.

As Gleick points out, he was one of the parties to the settlement. But where does this leave the future of the printed book? Gleick sees the physical book as a “technology that works.” Although I’m not sure that publishers will be happy with his view that the book rather than being a way to make money “has a chance for a new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms.”

While it is true as Gleick suggests that there will be people who want to collect and cherish such books, the markets for such books will come to (have already come to?) resemble antique markets. But, not all “book lovers” are antique collectors. If fact, I would guess, most book lovers are more interested in the (physical book’s) story or biography than in its physical delivery system.

Novelists and biographers and poets (and textbook writers!) want their works to be read–by as many people as possible. As long as they are being recognized for their work–through fame and fortune–most could care less how it is distributed. The physical book (like a vinyl record or a CD) is a means of storing and transmitting a novel or biography or poem (or a musical composition).

So ultimately I think the physical book of today will go the way of the hand-written book of the pre-Gutenberg era. When there were no printed books, stories and poems and biographies were memorized and transmitted orally or written out and recopied by scribes. One can imagine that back then lovers of oral story telling and hand-printed volumes would have regretted the loss of their way of experiencing the story or the poem. But today hand-written texts are mostly collected in archives or museums and read (in the original) only by a few researchers and scholars.

As soon as someone invents a satisfying way of storing and transmitting books electronically, many “book lovers” — the ones who love to read books but not necessarily collect them — will jump onto the new technology.

Here’s another analogy. I love to watch movies. But I don’t collect movies on tape or DVD. The movie medium’s “printing press” (magnetic tape, then CD, then DVD) was just recently invented. But in the Cyberspace age, the printing-press era for movies didn’t last very long. Today YouTube (streaming technology) is taking over. Given the choice, I’d still rather go to a theater to watch a movie–I love the public experience. But if I want to watch a movie that’s no longer in theaters, I’d much rather get it through YouTube than have to maintain my own library of favorites.

I predict that when a similar the book reading experience becomes similarly enjoyable through some kind of electronic medium, that’s the way the book market will go.

And one last point. Googles effort is to be applauded as a continuation of the trend–started by Gutenberg–toward the democratization of knowledge. The world will be a better place when all of the world’s books are just as accessible to the school kid in Afghanistan as they are to the college professor in the U.S. Google (and the authors and publishers) have taken a big step towards solving the input side of that distribution network. Hopefully, the world’s governments can take the political steps needed to assure that books are freely (i.e., without censorship) available on the output side.

My problem now is deciding how best to recycle the cases full of books in my attic and basement and office, all of which were acquired before the “Google-press” era. As a friend once said, books are so spiritual, but they’re damn heavy.

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