Authors will survive and thrive. Thousands of years ago, some creative individuals painted the caves of Lascaux and began the art of storytelling, which has survived far more than the introduction of the e-book.
Finally, Johannes Gutenberg can relax. Long into the future, the printed book will continue to survive because of its portability, durability, and flexibility. Many readers will prefer to read printed books for a variety of reasons that will endure. Though massive print runs will decline, today’s print technology allows a book to be manufactured and delivered within 24 hours of placing an order. I foresee a future when all of the electronic devices will have a button to press when you decide you really want that hardcover or paperback copy mailed to your home. Because no matter how exciting the world of enhanced media books becomes, I suspect there will be some like me who want it both ways. I may love my new iPad, but I still look forward to reading that relic of the past, the good old-fashioned, printed book.
Even as something about this feels true to your pessimistic soul—you can’t help but feel that we are not all slaves to technological progress. There are still backward parts of the world, like the theater companies of London, New York, Paris, and Buenos Aires where human beings still commit vast amounts of words to memory. You have friends who, when they get drunk, recite Keats, Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. In some kind of group unconscious our oral culture has survived after thousands of years, and so too “book culture” will survive. We live simultaneously in several times and ages of civilization. Human beings carry the past within them as they move into the future.
The “future of the book” is, by definition, unknowable. There are only attitudes towards the future which shape possible futures from the vantage of the present: foully apocalyptic, silvery utopian, cautiously conservationist. These attitudes can even coexist within each of us. When you think about the crisis of the book you are really confronted with a crisis of your will. You can choose the culture you want, although you may not get it exactly as you dreamed. If you commit yourself, again and again—and it is an ongoing commitment, less easy than it used to be—to the culture of thought, inquiry, and rhetorical expression that arose in conjunction with the written word, inevitably you will carry books with you in whatever form, and inevitably you’ll want to “access them” and compose them in their traditional bound and printed form, if only to feel a shimmer of connection to earlier human generations.
It’s undeniable that you do want this connection and that you’re not alone. American as you are, deracinated, modern: you have cause to regret so much waste, so many ruins created in the name of “fresh starts” and blank slates. The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott suggested that the fear of having a breakdown is our way of remembering an earlier breakdown. And so it is with industrialism and the book. American culture has killed so much that once gave pleasure to so many that it seems only logical to expect that books will be next. But the cycle of regret, too, is deeply ingrained in American life. After the buffalo were hunted to extinction on the western plains, the people who did it tried to bring them back; along the Northeastern rail lines, developers and architects eye the abandoned and rebuking factories and wonder what to make of them now. The old bones are what we have left, because we’ve surrendered the will and capacity to build newer structures like them. They are our pyramids and cathedrals, and the knowledge they once represented is lost to us, the pain that went into their labor has been distributed elsewhere, although we have not cured the pain of the laborer. To look on them is to know that it did not have to turn out that way.
Possibly due to the fact that our relative youth as a nation has been one of seemingly endless expansion and innovation, Americans are inordinately fond of melodramatic declarations about the end of an epoch, the death of a tradition. We practice a cult worship of gadgetry and novelty for its own sake. Just a couple things to keep in mind as we hear once again, in what is becoming a tradition in its own right, how books are going to be rudely shoved aside by Progress into History’s comforting embrace.
I was just talking about this with someone earlier this week. My essential feeling about it hasn’t changed; I think, as Prichard said, that it’s not a zero-sum situation. Most people will supplement their actual books with their electronic siblings to varying degrees. I don’t see many people just outright abandoning printed material for a Kindle, Nook, or iPad.
However the content gets packaged and delivered, I think Roth is right when he suggests that writing itself is what’s changing the most, that our fragmented writing style is an adaptation to fit our hyperactive attention spans. Like I said, it’s probably wise to stay a little jaded as Americans chase one shiny object or another like seven year-olds on a soccer field, yet even so, I can’t help but worry a bit when you see the relentless fixation on speed, convenience and half-baked opinions exemplified by something like Twitter, while it’s difficult to find anyone who cares to put more than two or three lines into an email. I think a lot of what worries people over this issue is the symbolic significance of the book itself, that of quiet, largely solitary contemplation and reflection. This, of course, is incomprehensible to a culture that sees time as money, something to be invested wisely and spent on accomplishments. If even private time with a book isn’t safe from a grotesque mentality that incessantly seeks to “improve” things, to mindlessly increase speed and efficiency, well…
Me, I think I’m going to follow the ideal suggested by Morris Berman and become a Taoist hermit, ensconced deep in the woods with my library. Feel free to stop by and borrow a book if you’re in the area.