“Books are the most dynamic things in history. Nations have gone to war over them. Civilizations have been decimated to extirpate a single text. And yet always something escapes and goes forward, something elusive that is indigenous to the book, that vanishes and surfaces again after the storms have passed, like the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
William Everson, 1976 [footnote 1]
The death of the book has been prophesised for centuries. When Gutenberg first populated Europe with printing presses that rendered handwritten texts obsolete, scholars mourned their passing. The invention of Linotype in the nineteenth century killed the labour-intensive process of composing printed pages by hand, and printers pined for a golden-era before automated machines. In 1835, Théophile Gautier declared that newspapers had butchered the book. Radio murdered reading soon after, and later television danced on its grave. Yet still there are books. They have more lives than cats, apparently. In a world on the verge of paperless information exchange- a world in which the screen has begun to replace the page, and a Kindle the library- has the book finally exhausted its ability to reincarnate? Or are we simply turning the page to the next chapter?
Before embarking on that discussion, it is first necessary to qualify what I mean by ‘a book’. To my mind a book can be three things simultaneously. It is a body of text that operates according to an established system. There is a beginning and an end, the semblance of sequential ‘narrative’, communicative flow takes linear form and the margins act as terminal points. It is also a physical object that exists in time and space and as such can be held in one’s hand, opened and closed, shelved and passed on through generations. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a book is an idea. I can remember, all of seven years old, weeping when I left an Enid Blyton novel outside in the rain. If memory serves it was The Magic Faraway Tree. The book was ruined, the pages stuck to one another, the cover stained and shredded. My favourite book had ceased to exist. To my amazement my mother mopped up my tears, vanished for several hours and returned with another copy. Different cover, new edition, same story. It took some convincing but eventually my eight year old self began to except that this was indeed the same Magic Faraway Tree. In actual fact, that same book existed simultaneously the world over on other children’s shelves, in other shapes and size, illustrated editions, brand new shiny models and dusty classics, English versions, French versions, Mandarin translations read in descending columns from right to left. No-one physical thing remained consistent throughout and yet each Magic Faraway Tree is indubitably the same book. The book exists outside of the physical world, in that quiet and deeply personal space of understanding between reader and story.
Nonetheless, even ideas are susceptible to change. The history of the book is one of evolution and adaptation. The book as we understand it today- print on a page, pages bound together by a cover into a codex- is a relatively new concept. An equally common model in the history of text distribution is the scroll. Once upon a time, the transition to ink on paper was a major technological advancement. There was also a time when illuminated manuscripts were literature du jour, but no publisher today would even consider hand drawn illustration. Indeed, it is all too easy to forget that the word book itself derives from the German ‘boc’- a reference to the beechwood tablets on which the records of a tribe were once painted. New technologies overtake the old and readers adjust accordingly. That is not so much a signifier of death as of life. To live, as John Newman put it, is to change.
In a very real sense the written word has never been as alive. The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, carved onto stone in the seventh century BCE, was intended to be read chronologically across twelve enormous tablets. You can order your own copy today as a Penguin paperback, all 304 pages of it. Haeinsa Temple in Korea houses a library of more than 80000 thirteenth century wooden blocks on which the oldest version of Buddhist scripture has been painstakingly engraved. Three different versions of that same text are available for purchase on Amazon or if you’re cheap, you can download your own copy from www.buddhanet.net/e-learning. Books, both old and new, have never been as pervasive or accessible a technology as they are today. If anything, the book is thriving.
What we are debating then is not so much the future of the book but the place of the printed book within it. The fear is of course that paper books will become a thing of the past, attracting, like the vinyl record, only a pitiful few niche collectors. An oft-quoted statistic from Amazon’s 2011 business year appears to back that up. Ebooks- for Kindle, for Ipad, or merely downloaded for PC- are currently outselling paperbacks and hardbacks combined. What goes unacknowledged in the hype surrounding the digital book phenomenon is that hardcopy sales are also increasing. Amazon has seen the fastest year-on-year growth rate of book sales across every platform, both print and digital. Yes, Kindle books are selling at a rapidly growing pace, but all books are selling in ever-increasing numbers.
Statistics aside, there is something to be said for the old-fashioned tome. Despite myself I am one of those hardcore stalwarts who treasure the printed book. My shelves tell the story of my life: my childhood dreams, my changing tastes, gifts from old lovers and new friends. Each book is a moment in time; a moment I can return to with the opening of a page. Sentimental it may be, but there is nothing quite like the comfort of an old volume you can hold with both hands, close to your heart. Could an Ebook replicate that sensation in any meaningful way? Could you cry over a screen, learn favourite passages by heart or loan it to acquaintances so that the experience could be shared? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
That being said, as long as there are people like me willing to buy books, there will be those willing to sell them. Such is the wonder of a market economy: demand necessitates supply. Even if we are, as many doomsayers would have us believe, watching the last spasmodic death throes of print culture, the book is in no danger of impending obsolescence. After all, a book is more than the sum of its parts. It is an idea. And ideas, like stories, are hard to kill.
[footnote 1: Everson, W. 1976. “The Poem as icon- Reflections on Printing a Fine Art” in A Book of the Book. (Eds) Clay, S and Rothenberg, J. 2000. Granary Books: New York City. Pg 51.]