This week, the story in The Canadian Press, in The Independent, in The Guardian, and, of course, in The New York Times, is that, in order to survive, the printed book must distinguish itself as an attractive alternative to e-books through the dark arts of book design. The Times quotes Robert S. Miller, publisher of Workman Press, as saying “When people do beautiful books, they’re noticed more. It’s like sending a thank-you note written on nice paper when we’re in an era of e-mail correspondence.”
And that’s pretty much the entire thrust of these stories. In the Times piece, it largely comes down to flashier book covers—more “special effects” equals more print sales—using examples like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (it’s got a semi-transparent jacket) and Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (it’s got a textured jacket, about which PW did its own story) and Jay-Z’s Decoded (which has a shiny gold design on the cover). Oh, and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles will “bear an embossed helmet sculpted with punctures, cracks and texture, giving the image a 3-D effect.”
From what I can tell, none of these effects are particularly special. We’ve seen them all before, and for years. (Can’t wait for them to revive strategically-placed holes in the book cover, revealing—radically!—a covetous stretch of rich, pearlescent endpaper.) And obviously, high-quality book design is about more than creating a flashy or intricate cover. But I’m not here to argue against high-quality book design—for that, I’ll turn to author and columnist Dan Agin. He responded to the Times story with a diatribe in The Huffington Post, in which he has this to say about “the book as an object” (his emphasis):
Never mind the words, never mind the content, never mind any literary art, never mind the ideas—it's an object, buster. The editors, salespeople, publicity people, booksellers—no one needs to actually read anything anymore (if they read anything at all). Just sell the damn cover!
Agin goes on to say how the focus is indicative of the “technophobic English majors in New York book publishing,” who probably only got the position because of who they know, and who also refuse to line-edit or fact-check because their highest priority is marketability. He further implies that these publishing execs are delusional if they think consumers are going to keep buying books—so bulky, so many spelling errors!—when they have the efficient and affordable option of weightless, easy-to-update e-books.
Well, that don’t wash with me either. Entire industries and political dynasties have thrived while betting against people’s willingness to pick efficiency or effectiveness over plain old desire. People don’t want what’s best for them: people want what they like. And people like books—especially well-made, suitable-for-display books that they can either keep for decades or graciously pass on to a loved one. (To be fair, they also like trashy mass market paperbacks suitable for leaving behind when disembarking the plane.)
Agin counters the “people like books” argument by pointing out (in the comments, replying to one of the many commenters who disagree with him) that people also liked the horse-and-buggy, even when it was obvious that the automobile was taking over. But that’s just one wavelength in a wide spectrum of American-style transportation ennui, a spectrum with room for the classic car fetishist, the muscle-car home mechanic, the steam engine romantic, and the ever-more-ubiquitous bicycle rider—all of whom can find their favorite mode of transport still in use, in however limited a context. Besides which, the automobile marks a clear step forward in transportation technology: though perhaps less charming, the automobile was clearly superior to the horse-and-buggy where it counts: speed. In what way are e-books superior to the pulp-and-print version? Sure, you can get them in your hands faster and carry a bunch of them around easier, but ease-of-acquisition and transportation-in-bulk are not major features of the reading experience. (Mysteriously, Agin also takes issue with the phrase “reading experience,” though he doesn’t go quite so far as to give it the “reading as experience” formulation.)
In other forums, e-book advocates (and pessimistic print-book advocates) have pointed to the implosion of the record industry as the likely model for the book industry’s future. But that’s another false comparison. To a layperson, the music industry’s product—that is, the song—is indistinguishable across different formats: since it’s the same sounds going into your ear in almost exactly the same way, the “content” of a vinyl record or a cassette tape or a CD can be easily reduced to the sounds recorded on it. The same just can’t be said of the written word: not only is the difference between a hand-held screen and bound, printed matter something that’s immediate, tangible, and emphatic, but those advocating for e-book superiority make the false assumption that a book’s “content” can also be reduced to what’s recorded in it. For most people, it can’t.
We all know someone who gets wistful for the smell of books—and yes, it may be us. Though it’s easy to disregard this as affectation, the stubborn persistence of that wist (wist?) is a clear illustration of the fact that, for many, the “content” of a book includes a set of sensual and historical qualities that can’t be reduced to the text recorded inside, or improved upon significantly by the current technology.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a technology emerging that would displace the book as the most convenient and well-loved method for consuming long strings of text. Though you’ve probably seen it before elsewhere (probably in a great 2010 blog post by Ryan Britt on Tor.com about, well, the exact same issue), it’s worth quoting from Isaac Asimov’s 1989 speech to the American Booksellers Association, when he asked his audience to imagine a device that "can go anywhere, and is totally portable. Something that can be started and stopped at will along its data stream, allowing the user to access the information in an effective, easy manner,” and “will require no electric energy to operate. We have this device. It’s called the book. It will never be surpassed because it represents the minimum technology with the maximum interaction you can have.”
As of now, the oldest print books yet discovered—which we’ll define here as “words etched on a paper-like medium”—include 3,000-year-old Egyptian papyrus scrolls; a six-page, 2,500-year-old Etruscan book made of gold; and the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scroll dated 868. Shouldn’t it be obvious by now? Print books will be around long after human beings and their e-readers have run out of energy. Print books aren’t dying—in fact, they’ll probably outlive us all.