Another Book Eulogist Lacks Vision

LaryBlowhard I just finished reading yet another article about the death of The Book. Yawn. People have been writing about this for decades, and I’m still waiting for a single author, theorist, prognosticator, or talking head to say something more than books are dying. I’m waiting for someone to say something substantial or specific about the future of The Book. Is it so difficult to suggest that The Book’s future will likely be heavily digital? Books will be moving toward multimedia, including digital stills, video, and sound. Again, not exactly risky assertions? Not only do these fortunetellers look a little like chicken-little, they continually demonstrate a stark lack of vision for what the future of The Book might actually look like.

Here’s Adam Penenberg writing for Fast Company:

Coming soon … It’s the end of the book as we know it, and you’ll be just fine. But it won’t be replaced by the e-book, which is, at best, a stopgap measure. Sure, a bevy of companies are releasing e-book readers-there’s Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and a half dozen other chunks of not-ready-for-primetime hardware. But technology marches on through predictable patterns of development, with the initial form of a new technology mirroring what came before, until innovation and consumer demand drive it far beyond initial incremental improvements. We are on the verge of re-imagining the book and transforming it something far beyond mere words. (“Forget E-Books: The Future of the Book Is Far More Interesting”)

Like so many other scholars writing about the death of The Book, Penenberg avoids saying something specific about what the future of The Book will be. Come on. Take a crack at it.

Here’s what I think’s true, but not new: Books will be digital. They will be produced, distributed, stored, and consumed on digital devices. They will likely contain multimedia. Okay. I agree. But I just described a web page, right? So if that’s the end of the argument, then books are already dead. They’ve already lost. But, clearly they’re not dead. Books are still selling like gangbusters. So what makes a book, and I mean a future book, different than a web page? Although it’s not the only question, it certainly is a necessary question to consider.

In order to actually make some claims about the future of The Book, there are a few strategies that seem useful. It’s important to understand that books are a material technology with specific purposes. An important question: Is it materiality that makes a book a book? Or is it the function of a book that makes it a book? Or is it the content of a book that makes it a book? Of course the answer will be some combination of all three. But because books are inevitably situated in a material, socio-cultural world, the materials, functions, and content of books are always in flux.

It is possible for a text to be a book without paper. I think most people would say yes. Does the text need to look like it has pages? I think this is one of those criteria that is most hotly contested. I would argue that a book doesn’t actually need to look like it has pages. There are all sorts of questions about the material (or look and feel) of a book that are central to definitions of The Book.

Is there something about the content of a text that makes it a book? I’m thinking about the difference between newspapers, catalogs, magazines, trade paperbacks, and durable hardcover books. What makes these different from each other, and how do they overlap, in terms of content? Does it have something to do with the quality of ephemera and durable information? That seems to be part of it, and if so, then what does the persistence of relevance have to do with books? Where’s the cut-off?

Do books function in a way that other texts (see paragraph above) do not? What does a book do that a magazine doesn’t, and vice-versa? How about a magazine and newspaper?

We definitely have a sense for these questions. A sort of know-it-when-we-see-it sort of definition. But the task of defining a book is much more complex when you need to get specific about these questions. So what to do?

First, in order to understand the impact of digital technologies on The Book, it’s important to think through these questions in terms of non-digital/pre-digital books.

Second, it’s important to ask what books do. How do they function? These questions are important because as new technologies emerge, book may no longer be the best option to respond to those needs and contexts. Mostly likely books will be much more specialized in their function. And as those functions multiply, the definitions of The Book will become increasingly situated and contingent. Anyone who’s done much reading about the history of The Book should recognize that this is the same phenomenon that lead to the differentiation of newpapers, magazines, and catalogs from books.

Finally, it’s important to participate in the future of The Book. And I mean producing them. Pushing the envelope. Think about the current technologies available which are related to textual production, and experiment with them enough to get a sense for which technologies or projects produce book-like texts. I’m thinking XHTML, Flash, PDFs, ePub technologies, mobile apps, tablet computers, etc.

So there you go: What are books, if they’re not digital? What do books do, and how do they do it? And what do you know about making books anyway?