March 31, 2010

What’s going to happen to all these Books?

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:54 pm by campbellmax

One of my favourite projects on the internet right now is Rob Walker‘s series on the “idea of the book.” If you read through some of those posts, you will find one dated March 5th that raised some interesting points, notably, the idea that with books turning digital, what is going to happen to those people who enjoy having bookshelves as a sort of wall paper or room decoration? Taking that one step further, what is going to happen when we can no longer buy and collect physical books?

So from that post, I started thinking of my own “idea of the book,” or what it is that books are becoming in the age of digital… everything. Personally, I love my collection of books, and, until the Kindle can recreate the experience of reading a book (I like holding a book in my hands and turning pages, so I doubt the Kindle will come close), I’ll gladly stick with my collection of dust-collectors. But there is another issue here, beyond convenience or preference, and that is how the digitalization of life is going to affect the way that we digest this media.

Walker links to this Globe and Mail article in his post, with a subtitle that reads: “In the future, our books will be invisible, like our music, but we’ll be the poorer for it.” Nicholson Baker, in his great New Yorker article laments the disappearance of certain nuances from one of his favourite literary passages after reading it on the Kindle:

“the wasp passage in “Do Insects Think?” just wasn’t the same in Kindle gray. I did an experiment. I found the Common Reader reprint edition of “Love Conquers All” and read the very same wasp passage. I laughed: ha-ha. Then I went back to the Kindle 2 and read the wasp passage again. No laugh.”

The rest of the article is fantastic if you are curious about the distinction between reading digitally and reading on paper.

But all that proves is that there are some people (myself included) who don’t feel as though the Kindle is a good substitute for paper-and-glue books. A Benjamin-ian reading of the Kindle would likely spark a debate over whether there is a difference between the words on a screen and the words on a page. Besides, with no raw materials or real industrial processes, wouldn’t the digitization of text provide actual facsimiles? “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” would no longer be relevant; “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Access” would follow-up nicely and Benjamin wouldn’t have to do all that convincing to explain why one series of Is and Os are identical to another. What I have on my screen is exactly the same as what you have on your screen and there is no debating that. What I mean by this is, using the internet as an example, I am viewing text and images that are loaded from the same source as your text and images. It isn’t reproduction, it is two lenses on the same object. Can the same be said about my physical copy of Benjamin’s essay and yours? Probably not.

And what would Borges think of digital books? Surely his Library of Babel wouldn’t exist anymore. Even now, a library with no apparent organization or reason seems impossible, what with computerized cataloguing systems and all. So that insinuation that the chances of a man “finding his own book, or some perfidious variation of his own book, is close to zero” is wrong, because the 21st century man will just hop on the Google and find his book in a second. Hell, it’s probably on his Kindle anyway, so he won’t have to walk through the panoptically depressing library that Borges describes in order to find it. Everything on an e-reader is right there at your fingertips, there is no need for a Library of Babel or even a bookshelf at all, we just need a gigantic iPad.

So those are pretty much the two sides of the book argument. There are the purists who, like Baker, are interested in the difference between the digital and physical reading experiences or, like Walker, are interested in the physical book and all that goes along with the object. And there is the other side that just wants life to be more convenient. Why schlep 10,000 paperbacks around when you can carry a Kindle or any other e-reader instead?

I’ll let you guys figure out which side you’re on and also leave you with these questions: what does the continued digitization of tangible items mean to you? Have you ever thought that reading off of an e-reader will change the way you read a book, or has a book always been “just words?”

Further Reading:

Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp.217-251.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel,” Ficciones. 79-88.



  1. […] recently read a blog post by my friend Max Campbell that really got me thinking about the future of the print industry. In […]

  2. campbellmax said,

    I told my friend Alex Lynn about the post I wrote and he decided to write a response in his blog. He brings up some great points, many things that I didn’t think of when writing mine, and is well-worth the read:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: