07 November 2006

08. Bookless Futures? Two Other Views

Last week we discussed whether we were indeed headed towards a bookless future. Here are two perspectives, both dealing implicitly I think with works of interest to the curious, educated reader, rather than works of scholarship or popular novels.

The first is by Jason Epstein, the legendary American editor and publisher, whose career is marked by a number of milestones. In the following excerpt from a recent review of several books on Google, he argues that we are nowhere close to reading books electronically being a common experience. He also discusses briefly his involvement in a project to print books on demand, cheaply and quickly, which is currently in a test stage. The webpage for his firm On Demand Books is worth a look.

The second is from a current on-line interview with Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker. The excerpt given here recounts his visit to the Google campus, and his discussion with Google staff on the future of the book. (And no, I can't explain why the font size resisted all atempts to standardize it!)


Jason Epstein:

"Page's original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices. Only those who have not read the Iliad or Moby-Dick, or Bleak House or Swann's Way or The Origin of Species, will entertain this improbability. Until human beings themselves evolve as electronic receivers, readers will select such books as these—the embodiment of civilizations—as files from the World Wide Web, whence they will be transmitted either to a personal computer and printed out—a cumbersome procedure resulting in a stack of unbound sheets—or, much more satisfactorily, to a nearby machine not much bigger than an ATM which will automatically print, bind, and trim requested titles on demand that are indistinguishable from factory-made books, to be read as books have been read for centuries.

"Meanwhile Google, together with the Gutenberg Project and the Open Content Alliance, and similar programs, has turned a new page in the history of civilizations leaving to us the privilege and the burden of carrying the story further. As part of this effort, On Demand Books, a company in which I have an interest, has installed in the World Bank bookstore in Washington, D.C., an experimental version of a machine such as I have just described, one that receives a digital file and automatically prints and binds on demand a library-quality paperback at low cost, within minutes and with minimal human intervention—an ATM for books. A second experimental machine has been sent to the Alexandrina Library in Egypt and will soon be printing books in Arabic. A newer version will be installed later this year or early next year in the New York Public Library."


Adam Gopnik:

Interviewer: "In the book, you write that “the author on a book tour . . . will be as incredible a figure to our children as the author on a Chautauqua lecture tour.” What’s going to fade away—book tours or books?"

Gopnik: "Well, both, if the Cassandras are right. But the book tour is what I had in mind; presumably we’ll be able to communicate instantly with our readers by videophone or brain implant or mind splinters or whatever in the future. The idea that writers were once sent out like the last of the Willy Lomans, trudging from bookstore to bookstore to trot out their wares before an audience of twenty or so bored listeners who happened to drift in from the rain, while we try as desperately as Willy ever did to keep a good and cheerful face in the face of all those empty chairs—that idea, I suspect, will seem as remote to the future as the lecture does now.

"It’s not all empty chairs, of course; there are also rooms filled with eager auditors whose devotion to a certain idea of reading is enough to restore any author’s morale. Readers appear, seemingly out of the blue, and more than make up for the exhaustions.

"And then there are incidental pleasures. For instance, I got to go to the Google campus, outside San Francisco, and speak to the Google-ites. Google headquarters turns out to be enormous, far bigger than I could have imagined, and looks a bit like a cross between the school in “High School Musical” and that spooky village from the old “Prisoner” television series. An amazing monitor in the reception area displays current searches from all over the world, and I went in some slight fear that they would deliver to the visiting speaker, as a well-meaning but terrifying prize, a list of his last two years of searches. (“ ‘Swedish models’? Oh, yeah, so I did. . . . Well, I was searching for, you know, certain Ikea appliances. For my wife.”) But my hosts were serious and extremely literary. Over a talk, and then lunch from a fine (and free) cafeteria, where I piled my plate with vegetarian specialties, I had a chance to talk with the hyper-brilliant, hyper-earnest, amazingly young, and—significantly, for a field that has long skewed so awkwardly male—female hosts. To my surprise, they defended the notion of the continuing necessity of the book far more eloquently than I could, and insisted, to a degree that almost convinced an author who sees his children starving as everything goes on the Web, that the online reading audience will only feed the appetite for the bookstore book, as snacks encourage meals. And all of them so student-like! To adapt Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future, and it is school."

Issue of 2006-11-06 Posted 2006-10-30


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