Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Future of the Book

I've been hearing more and more about the "future of the book," which I gather is a debate about how to use technology to enhance the way we produce and consume information. Well, that's what it means to me, and I'm admittedly a little fuzzy, even after having a look at some of the sites dedicated to this study and various media stories, blogs, etc. I find the topic to be irritating from the get-go, because I tend toward fuddy-duddyism as I get older, and silly headlines that scream, "The book is dead!" just make me want to poke someone in the eye. I have no problem with the Internet, with technology in general, and what use we may make of it to convey information to greater numbers of people. The "future of the book" groups out there are indeed exploring (fruitfully, I hope) the future of something--it's just not the "book." There needs to be some newly-coined word for it, but I suspect--as no one knows where they are going to end up--it's hard to name it.

A book is not an e-book; it's not a Web site; and it's not even an electronic version of the exact printed text of Moby Dick. Neither is it an audio recording or a film version. A book is a physical object with its own peculiar uses and associations that may have little or nothing to do with the text printed on its pages, which is precisely what makes it irreplaceable, ephemeral, and valuable in its own right. People use books to decorate their houses, to stop a door, to create architectural interest, and set their coffee cup on. They scatter books around them--whether read or unread--to reflect something they think about themselves, or want other people to think about them. They use books to shield themselves from loneliness in a crowded restaurant or chattering neighbors on an airplane. They may even decide to bop someone on the head with one (and if it's a Bible, it adds a moral exclamation point). So these are obviously the purely utilitarian aspects of books--important, but there exist perfectly acceptable substitutions.

For me, it is the purely personal association that books have that make them valuable. And I suspect it is the reason that otherwise reasonable people who happen to love books and reading often react like wild-eyed Luddites to "the book is dead" rhetoric. This is what I mean: I love Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, not just because it's a great novel, but it is a book that my mother read aloud to us, when people in this country still did such things. I have a soft spot in my heart for Julius Caesar because my brothers and I giggled over our uninformed recitations from the battered two-volume set that was a fixture in the house. No one told us to read Shakespeare--we were just entertaining ourselves. (We thought at the time that calling someone a "senator" in JC was quite an insult--as well it should be.)

I still own the worn, hardcover copies of Little Women and Little Men that I loved and reread, outside in the yard, up in the maple tree, and very likely by candlelight sometimes because the power was always going out in summer storms. I remember very well the copy of Jane Eyre that I read at home as a youngster--a cheap trade paperback, beige with a sketch of a young girl on the cover. It wasn't a terribly attractive book, but one I wish I still had. I remember that book and the sympathy I felt for the child Jane--terror-stricken and locked in a room as punishment, with no friend in the house. That scene in that particular book lives in my memory as it does not from subsequent readings in graduate school. I don't recall that edition at all.

I own books that were gifts and remind me of people I'll never meet again. I have, somewhere, my great grandfather's pocket-size New Testament; also a cheesy book of poems about Friendship that I keep only because it was my grandmother's.

All of this--and much more that I am leaving out--is to say that a book is a thing in itself--and not to be confused with a labyrinth of hyperlinks, which if lost, no one is likely to mourn. (They'll just harangue their tech support.) Its future is not so much in question, because it has a past for anyone who still cares about it. Books form part of our intimate histories and connect us to people, places, and avenues of thought that defy listing. That is a level of interaction that even our most advanced technologies will ever be likely to claim.

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