I have been invited to so many conferences on “The Death of the Book” during the past decade that I think books must be very much alive. The death notices remind me of one of my favorite graffiti, inscribed in the men's room of the Firestone Library at Princeton University:
God is dead.
Then, added in another hand:
Nietzsche is dead.
The book is not dead. In fact, the world is producing more books than ever before. According to Bowker, 700,000 new titles were published worldwide in 1998; 859,000 in 2003; and 976,000 in 2007. Despite the Great Recession of 2009 that has hit the publishing industry so hard, one million new books will soon be produced each year.
Yet the general lack of concern for history among Americans has made us vulnerable to exaggerated notions of historic change—and so has our fascination with technology. The current obsession with cellular devices, electronic readers and digitization has produced a colossal case of false consciousness. As new electronic devices arrive on the market, we think we have been precipitated into a new era. We tout “the Information Age” as if information did not exist in the past. Meanwhile, e-books and devices like the Kindle represent less than 1% of the expenditure on books in the United States.
History shows us that one medium does not necessarily displace another—at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing flourished long after Gutenberg's invention; newspapers did not wipe out the printed book; the radio did not replace the newspaper; television did not destroy the radio; and the Internet did not make viewers abandon their television sets. Every age has been an age of information, each in its own way. In my new book, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future [PublicAffairs], I make that very point, because I believe we cannot envisage the future—or make sense of the present—unless we study the past. Not necessarily because history repeats itself or teaches us lessons, but because it can help to orient us when faced with the challenges of new technologies.
Most of my own research has been in a field only recently recognized as a new academic discipline: the history of the book. My work has taken me from historical research to involvement in electronic publishing ventures to the directorship of the Harvard University Libraries. While confronting the problems of the present, I often find myself thinking back to the world of books as it was experienced by the founding fathers and the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Despite their very different origins, Franklin, Jefferson, Voltaire and Rousseau considered themselves citizens of a common republic of letters, a cultural realm without boundaries—political, disciplinary or linguistic—and open to everyone who could read and write. That, of course, was a utopian vision limited to a tiny elite—not only were most people in the 18th century illiterate, they couldn't afford to buy books even if they could read.
Today, however, we have the means to make that utopia a reality. In many societies, despite enormous inequalities, ordinary people not only read but have access to a huge quantity of reading matter through the Internet. I would not minimize the digital divide, which separates the computerized world from the rest, nor would I underestimate the importance of traditional books. But the future is digital. And I believe that if we can resolve the current challenges facing books in ways that favor ordinary citizens, we can create a digital republic of letters. Much of my book is devoted to this premise and can be summarized in two words: digitize and democratize.
Easily said, I know. Today's publishers, booksellers, authors and librarians struggle against formidable barriers. Anyone who has sweated over a balance sheet or listened to the shoptalk of sales reps is unlikely to have much patience for utopian dreaming. Thus, it helps to put the book's current challenges in perspective. For example, I'm now editing the diary of a sales rep who spent five months on the road in France in 1778, flogging books from horseback. I often think of him when I am challenged to produce a business plan for one of my electronic projects—his horse never made it back to the home office. Futuristic fantasies will not get you far in the hard world of publishing today, but it also helps to know how tough the business was in earlier information ages.
While I believe readers and professionals alike can take heart and gain perspective by learning about their predecessors, most of my book concerns current issues and the way their resolutions are likely to shape the information landscape for the foreseeable future. The issues facing the book are urgent, I believe, not merely because book professionals must find a way through the immediate financial crises that plague them, but because the publishing landscape is shifting under our feet. We are living in one of those rare moments in history when things may come apart and be put back together again in ways that will determine the future for decades or more, despite the endless innovations of technology.
That is why, you'll notice, I have devoted so much of the book to Google's efforts. Google's recent attempts to digitize the great bulk of the books in the greatest research libraries of the world and then to market its digital treasure could have a profound effect on the future of the digital republic of letters. Will the fate of the digital republic of letters be determined by the laws of the marketplace or will there be provisions to protect the public good? A court in New York will soon decide, and its decision could have a profound effect on the rules and the way the game is played in the world of books.
I realize, of course, that there will be other decisive moments and other contending forces, and that I may not be able to accurately see the future. But whether or not you agree with my assessment of Google, I hope you will find it, and the history offered in the book, useful. By putting today's issues in historical context, I hope to both encourage a broad view of the current situation and to stimulate debate.
And, yes, I chose to do this by bringing my reflections together in a printed codex, a fact that should not be overlooked. A book about books: the subject suits the form, but is meant to open up our understanding of new modes of communication, not to lament the passing of a medium that has not died—and never will.