Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Round the Wrekin with Books

I was watching Alan Yentob's programme on the BBC last night about the future of books. Co-incidently, I had been reading some articles a few days previously on the same subject, and these were from 16 years ago. The question that keeps cropping up is, "What is a book?".

On the 5th August 2010, Google Books said, "After we exclude serials, we can finally count all the books in the world. There are 129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday". Not being an expert in the field, I have no idea as to how such a figure is arrived at. It's similar to the United Nations telling me that when I was born, I was the 75,433,461,990th person to have lived since history began. (By the way, that's the actual figure from their web site).

I would guess that throughout history there has been concern about the future of 'books'. When parchment replaced papyrus as the favourite writing material, I'm sure that there were some who regretted the move. Similarly, when codices took the place of scrolls, I can imagine some wondering where will it all end. With Gutenberg around the middle of the 15th Century originating the idea of the mass-produced book through his printing press, the lovers of beautiful hand written and hand printed materials would be wringing their hands in despair. His process has by and large remained unchanged for 500 years, but today, with the dramatic progress with the computer chip, the same fearful thoughts of where will it all end have come to the fore. Throughout history, people have either embraced change, or complained and worried about it.

But what is a book? Many people seem to have tried to arrive at a definition on which everyone can agree, but it's doubtful that this is ever going to happen. Edward Hutchins, in a posting to the Books Arts List on the 8th April 1995 says, "When I defined books for myself, I chose not to look at what a book is, what it is made out of, or what it looks like. Instead, I chose to consider how a book is used and what purpose it serves. For me, a book is 'a structure for storing and sharing information'". He goes on to discuss the views of Phillip Smith on what gives an object "bookness". Their view is that perhaps instead of saying that a book IS this AND that, we should be saying that bookness CONSISTS of this OR that. So to Hutchins, bookness constitutes "pages, covers, binding, sequence, narration, illustration, table of contents, durability, shape, purpose, meaning, use, acceptance, ISBN number, book-shelve-ability, etc".

If a book is a "structure for storing and sharing information", does it matter what that structure looks like? Has the codex had its day? Of course, for many people, how the information is contained is vitally important, and only the bound codex will do. Many will agree with Edward Hutchins when he says, "I want something visually interesting and stimulating that I can touch and handle.  The electronic age opens new doors, but it's the loss of the tactile feel of a tangible object that I miss. While computer whizzes and forward-thinking visionaries are soaring into flights of virtual reality, I'm happy to remain behind wallowing in the pleasure of cradling a physical object in my hand and savouring the anticipation of turning the next page". 

Alan Yentob, perhaps in humour, suggested that someone could come up with an App that provided the smell of a book that so many say that they enjoy. Now, I love my physical books, and while I don't have as many as I once did, it is still a delight to handle them, to read them, and to see them on the shelf. But the world is changing, and changing very fast. The discussion about digitising books seems to be in two parts. One for the present, and the other for the future. The present seems to cover books that are already in hard copy, and the future is about books that are yet to be written. Millions of books have already been digitised, and millions more are in the pipe-line. The combined might of Google, Microsoft and Apple will ensure that this trend will not be reversed, so there is little point in lamenting it. Probably more people are enthusiastic about this though, than those who are not, as it brings access to works that perhaps would be difficult to find otherwise.

The British Library has teamed up with Google to initially digitise 250,000 publications, and has made 45,000 titles available to iPad owners. Microsoft is also funding the digitising of publications throughout the world. This Tsunami will not abate until every extant publication in the world has been digitised. In addition to the three giants mentioned, countless smaller operations such as the Gutenberg Project in the States are hard at work digitising publications. Cost verses free access to digital publications is for others more competent than I to discuss.

I've been wondering a lot about the future, and where this leaves the ordinary man and woman. Digitising what is already in hard form is one thing, but what about the publications of the future? Will there still be a place for hard copy, or will everything be produced in digital form? What time-span is covered by the future? Is it ten years, twenty years, fifty years? Judging by the speed everything is happening at the moment, I suspect that it won't be at the tail-end of the time period, and the end results will probably be phased in. Being in my middle 60's, I'm nearer the end of life's journey than the beginning, so I have a vested interest in knowing the future.

I suspect that the days of the codex are numbered, and that sometime in the not too distant future, the only new works that will be available, will be digital through whatever e-reader is available. The current younger generation are already immersed in the digital world, and they and the generation to follow will only accept their reading material in digital form. There was a time not so long ago when I would have regretted this very much, but being pragmatic by nature, I now accept the inevitability of it all; but more than that, I actually think that I embrace it.

What will change in the future if new material is only available in digital form? There'll still be the need for writers, so that won't change. Someone will still have to publish the new material, so I guess that won't change. I suppose that there will still be a place for literary agents, so that won't change. What would change is a role for printers of new material. Bookshops would no longer sell new works, or public libraries lend them, but there would still be many 'not new' publications to go around.

I love reading, and I love reading in bed. Having seen so many people in the street and on public transport with their e-reader's, it all seems so much more comfortable and accessible. After years of balancing heavy books, my body deserves a rest. My critics may disagree, but if there's one thing I've learnt in life, it's that though we may not like something, it doesn't mean that it's not going to happen.

I may well be talking a load of rubbish, and I shall continue to buy the book as we know it for as long as I can. But in addition, I wouldn't be surprised if next year I bought myself an e-reader, to begin phasing myself in for the new dawn. What do the experts think?

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