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Steve Wasserman on the Fate of Books After the Age of Print
Posted on Mar 5, 2010
Is the printed book on its way to extinction? Will the e-book win the day? Will writers be able to make a living? Will publishers? Will booksellers? Will there be any readers? Is there life after the Age of Print? The new order is fast upon us, the ground shifts beneath our feet, and as the old sage put it, all that is solid melts into air. What will the future bring?
The only thing we can know for certain, of course, is the past—and even the past is notoriously elusive and discloses its truths in fragments whose meanings provide fodder for endless speculation and debate. The present is a vexing blur, its many parts moving too swiftly to be described with consensual accuracy. As for its significance, or what it portends, only the future can render a credible verdict. The future is, famously, an undiscovered—and unknowable—country.
That has not stopped the avatars of the New Information Age. For these ubiquitous boosters, the future is radiant. For them, the means of communication provided by digital devices and ever-enhanced software will democratize publishing, empower those authors whose writings have been marginalized by or, worse, shut out of mainstream publishing, and unleash a new era of book commerce. E-books, they insist, will save an industry whose traditional methods of publishing have been challenged by the new technological forces now sweeping the globe. Robert Darnton, one of our more sober and learned historians of reading and the book, believes that the implications for the ecology of writing and reading, for publishing and bookselling—indeed, for literacy itself—are profound. For we now have, as he notes in his recent and indispensable “The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future,” the possibility to make “all book learning available to all people, or at least those privileged enough to have access to the World Wide Web. It promises,” he predicts, “to be the ultimate stage in the democratization of knowledge set in motion by the invention of writing, the codex, movable type, and the Internet.” In this view, we are living at one of history’s hinge moments.
James Atlas, a former writer for The New York Times and The New Yorker, and now an independent publisher, says: “Once technology is discovered you can’t stop it. We’re going to have e-books. We’re going to have print-on-demand business. … The key word is adaptation, which will happen whether we like it or not.” Jane Friedman, former president and chief executive of HarperCollins and a former longtime publishing executive with Alfred A. Knopf, proclaims that digital publishing “is going to be the center of the universe.” All the traditional models of publishing, she declares, are broken.
The predicament facing the publishing industry is best understood against the backdrop of several overlapping and contending crises: The first is the general challenge confronting publishers of adapting to the new digital and electronic technologies that are increasingly rendering traditional methods of production and distribution obsolete, and undercutting profit margins; the second is the profound structural transformation roiling the entire book-publishing and book-selling industry in the age of conglomeration and digitization; and the third and most troubling crisis is the sea change in the culture of literacy itself, the degree to which our overwhelmingly fast and visually furious culture renders serious reading increasingly irrelevant, hollowing out habits of attention indispensable for absorbing long-form narrative and the following of sustained argument.
These crises, taken together, have wide-ranging implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democratic polity. The historical role of books in the spreading of knowledge would be hard to overestimate. That role, to say the least, is now in doubt. In analyzing this historic juncture, it is important to retain a sense of proportion, to steer soberly between the Party of the Future, whose members are true believers in the utopia they insist will bring us a new dynamic and open medium that will liberate the creative possibilities of humanity, and the Party of the Past, whose members fear that the dystopian tsunami now rushing toward us signals the death knell of civilization, the trivialization of the word.
Once it was the novel that was said to be dying. (Philip Roth, a doyen of the modern republic of letters, recently predicted that in 25 years the number of people reading novels would be akin to the number now reading Latin poetry; it will be an eccentricity, not a business.) Today it is the book itself that is thought to be on its way to extinction. Few thought this gloomy prospect was likely, much less to be welcomed. Authors and publishers alike consoled themselves with the thought that new technologies don’t always replace older ones, pointing to the comforting example of the way in which the advent of television didn’t supplant radio. The book, in this view—compact, portable, sensuous—was, despite the electronic devices challenging it, our most important information-retrieval system. For proof, one had only to point to Bill Gates, that Yoda of the virtual world and founder of the global behemoth Microsoft. When, in 1996, he wanted to tell us about “The Road Ahead,” to commit the vision thing, what did he do? He had the Viking Press publish his book. He did not post his Delphic pronunciamentos on his Microsoft site. For Gates knew, despite his conviction that the digital future would carry the day, that the codex, the old-fashioned book, still retained the patina of authority that only time and tradition can bestow.
The attachment to the book as object was also deep, seemingly unshakable. When the late Susan Sontag was a girl of 8 or 9, she would lie in bed looking at her bookcase against the wall. She had begun to read her way through the writers published in Random House’s Modern Library editions, which she’d bought in a Hallmark card store, using up her allowance. Gazing at that bookcase, she recalled, was “like looking at my fifty friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom.” Will the invisible library concealed within the Kindle beckon in quite the same way?
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