The Digital Future of Books?

Doing a lot of reading for my prospectus lately. Books about the future of the book. Bolter, Landow, Lanham, Nunberg, Hayles, Baron and then some other smaller texts–isolated chapters and articles. I’m starting to get the impression that people LOVE to prognosticate. But who can blame them? We’re living in the Age of Computers (advent = second half of twentieth century). More specifically, especially as this discussion relates to the future of the book, we’ve seen the encroachment of personal (and personalized) computers into many, many corners of our lives. Everything is becoming digital. Phones. News. Television. Cameras. Traditionally, books have not been mediated much beyond paper and ink. No audio. No video. No interactivity. And yet books have remained an important part of our lives. And they’ve seemed to maintain a relatively strong position, especially in the world of students and scholars. So how can we (you and me, as scholars and or students) help but wonder what will become of books in a digital world?

Well, the authors I’ve listed above each have their thoughts, and I hope to get to some sort of comparison/conversation/discourse about them in tomorrow’s post. Today I want to ask for your help, I guess. After reading claim after claim about what the digital future has in store for books, or arguments that we need to embrace the idea of digital books, I started to make notes to myself wondering where I could find examples of these folks producing texts related to their arguments. More specifically, I started to wonder, do these folks make (or did they end up making) digital texts themselves? N. Katherine Hayles (whose work I LOVE) has served as an editor for a collection of digital literature. Jay David Bolter is a co-creator of Storyspace. George Landow is an author of multiple hypertexts.  And so on.

What a relief. For a minute, before I actually found some of these texts, I wondered if I might be reading the work of scholars writing “about” these issues, rather than from “within” them. I don’t want to suggest that an author needs to be producing digital texts in order to have the digi-cred to write about them. Not at all. Observers can be incredibly insightful–often in ways that insiders can’t. Furthermore, discussions of digital texts are much healthier when conducted between as diverse a group as possible. Linguistics. Computer science. Anthropology. Literature. Composition. Design. Human-Computer Interaction. History. All of these backgrounds make for a healthy discourse community. Furthermore, I think this diversity of people actually weighing in on the future of the book belies just how ubiquitous books are. Following that same train of thought, it’s important to try to make sense of the phenomenon of so many people so invested in the future iteration of the book, especially given the begrudgingly accepted notion that books’ current iterations are about to radically diversify into many new and different manifestations.

I guess I’m writing through these thoughts because I’m still thinking structurally about my project. How will I organize it? What will the essential components be? The history of the book. Books as responses to social/cultural/academic needs. Historical understandings of the affordances of technologies likely to affect future notions of books. Limitations of digital texts and what is lost when a print-paper book is replaced by a digital text.

The point I’m trying to get at here is that books aren’t just objects. That’s too static. Thinking of them that way will certainly leave you with nothing but nostalgia as text become digital.

Books do work. That’s the thing. Print books allow for certain types of work, but they also limit other types of work. The materiality of books defines and is defined by the work we hope/expect them to do.

Those materials are becoming increasingly digital. And flexible. And are being negotiated. Books are being defined right now. New work is being found for books to accomplish. Books are finally able to do some of the work we’ve always wanted them to do.

And, with a nod to Cynthia Selfe, I want to start really paying attention. To participate. To find those contexts where I can help figure this work out.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. These are all good thoughts. I would add in the economics of the situation… and how this cuts two ways. First, as we know, publishers, especially academic publishers, are in financial trouble. Even if books still work to do book things, the marketplace can squeeze them out. Second, on the other hand, we ought to consider the economics of digital publishing. How much (additional) labor is created in digital scholarship, particularly if one moves beyond the PDF?

  2. These are all good thoughts. I would add in the economics of the situation… and how this cuts two ways. First, as we know, publishers, especially academic publishers, are in financial trouble. Even if books still work to do book things, the marketplace can squeeze them out. Second, on the other hand, we ought to consider the economics of digital publishing. How much (additional) labor is created in digital scholarship, particularly if one moves beyond the PDF?

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