Yesterday, Scott posted the good news that six Bay Area libraries are making audiobooks available as downloads that readers can listen to on their digital devices. At least one other library appears to be jumping on the digital download bandwagon, but this one is providing the mp3 player as part of the deal. The South Huntington Public Library in Suffolk County, New York, is lending out iPod Shuffles preloaded with audiobooks. Right now the selection is pretty limited, but I think the news that libraries are beginning to digitally distribute audiobooks could point towards a burgeoning revolution in the audiobook business. Goodbye CDs 1 through 28, hello davincicode.mp3. (This is especially exciting news for me since this happens to be the childhood library of Mrs. Millions. I’ll have to look for the iPods next time I stop by.)
You may have heard. Google has just launched a service called Google Print. Like Amazon, Google’s service allows people to search through books. Google announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair that are adding a lot of major publishers and they will be adding many titles. As with Amazon, there is a limit to how many pages you can view. And, at this stage anyway, it’s not possible to search the book database exclusively. I’ve found that the best way to get a Google Print result to show up is to type the word “book” and then whatever it is you’re searching for. It’ll be interesting to see if this develops further.
I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered – the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister’s son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. “Wine is boring,” she told me. “Books last longer.” Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, “is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read.” Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: “Edan – For the summer. Thanks. Patrick.” Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I’ve been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone – imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute… I don’t have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital…) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I’m writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I’m not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don’t want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them – although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I’m in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don’t mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth’s first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she’s getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he’s interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn’t be dating anyone who hasn’t already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it’s not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that’s why a digital copy won’t mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand… Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It’s private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it’s public – the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you’re inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It’s the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I’ve recently realized that I’m also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader’s identity. It’s like – what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that – private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I’m reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won’t have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can’t seem to let go of what will be lost…
This week at The Millions, we’re attempting to gather some of our thoughts about the transformation of book coverage in the digital age. On Wednesday, Garth looked at the death of the newspaper book review section. Yesterday, Max considered the revenue problems facing literary websites… and the vices and virtues of one of the solutions. And in today’s final installment, Max will hazard some early guesses about the next possible upheaval in the economy of literary journalism: the e-book reader.
Yesterday, we looked at some of the revenue sources available for literary sites and why Amazon’s affiliate program, despite its flaws, is often a better option than standard advertising and affiliate programs run by other booksellers. But Amazon links – and the implied endorsement that comes with them – present new problems, making Amazon ever bigger and more central to a book industry that for readers and writers may be better off fragmented. What’s now known as #Amazonfail offers a perfect example of what readers and writers have to lose from an Amazon-dominated book industry. Patrick recently outlined on his Vroman’s Blog why the threat that Amazon poses is one of control and not censorship per se. Ultimately, the Amazon experiment may prove unsustainable, and the viability of online book coverage may come to rest on a more robust and more serious advertising model than is currently available.
In the world of books, Amazon has a massive footprint. Even as other book retailers – chain and indie – have struggled to stay afloat, Amazon has used its heft in other product categories to treat books as a loss leader and consolidate its hold on that market. A pair of surveys in 2008 put online book sales at between 21%-30% of total U.S. book sales, with the assumption being that the lion’s share of those online sales belonged to Amazon. In a market as fragmented as books, that’s a big number. And as Patrick points out, monoculture (or as we used to call it in econ class, monopoly) can cause problems for those stakeholders we discussed yesterday. The NYTBR’s stakeholders can publicize, read about, and review books elsewhere, but amid tough times for bookstore chains and many indies, Amazon may be the only viable option for many readers. For authors, readers, and publishers of the books impacted by the recent “glitch,” the potential dangers of Amazon’s outsized position became glaringly obvious. Regardless of whether the “glitch” was intentional, the result of a poorly constructed classification system, or just plain bad luck, it is the sort of thing that can all too easily waylay stakeholders in a market controlled by a single giant.
From the standpoint of readers and those concerned with freedom of expression, last week’s “glitch” was alarming, but from the standpoint of someone tracking the role played by Amazon’s Associates Program in the business model of book- and culture-focused sites, another effect of Amazon’s large footprint has become a source of even more consternation.
We’ve written at length about the Kindle here at The Millions over the last two years. To the extent that there is a debate about the experience the device offers, we haven’t taken sides, but as we have observed how Amazon has treated the device within the Associates program, we have come to understand the huge land-grab the Kindle represents.
In short, by making it possible for Kindle users to buy Kindle ebooks via the device itself, Amazon has cut middlemen out of the picture. The Associate’s commission depends on a click in a browser. For ebooks bought via Kindle, there is no click. And, just to be certain that intermediaries are cut out of the Kindle food chain, Amazon recently made another, symptomatic adjustment to its Associates Program. In February, the same month that Amazon launched the Kindle 2, Amazon quietly stopped paying Associates commissions on Kindle ebooks bought via the web. (Unsurprisingly, Amazon still pays a healthy bounty on Kindles sold. The calculus is clear. Sell more Kindles and sell more books via a vertically integrated system that only Amazon controls.) Like Apple’s iTunes ecosystem in the era of digital rights management, Amazon’s Kindle represents a bid to control distribution of a new and closed digital format that is only compatible with Amazon-approved devices. If, as has largely been the case with music, books are increasingly distributed digitally, Amazon’s position in that market could become huge. [Update: Subsequent to the publication of this piece, Amazon resumed paying commissions on Kindle books bought through the website, though commissions are not earned on ebooks bought through the Kindle device.]
The company’s early move to lock Associates out of commissions on ebooks is just a taste of what Amazon could do with a dominant position in the emerging ebook market. (Consider, for example, the recent news that a banned Amazon account also disables the Kindle. And separately, after cornering the market on ebooks, Amazon can set the prices it wants to charge for them.) For book sites pursuing affiliation as a revenue option, it also offers a scary prospect: that the revenue earned from Amazon’s program will slowly dwindle in inverse proportion to the popularity of Kindle ebooks.
Some will argue that the Kindle ebook market is currently too small to matter, but the Kindle may be rapidly gaining steam. We recently observed the massive ramp up in Kindle ebooks bought by readers of The Millions since the launch of the Kindle 2. And TechCrunch recently reported that Amazon may have sold 300,000 Kindle 2s in a little over two months since the Kindle 2 was unveiled – a stunning rate in comparison to the 400,000 Kindles sold during the 15-month lifespan of the first generation device.
As all of this has come into focus for us, it’s become easier to envision a time when it would no longer make sense for The Millions to link to Amazon. If it comes to pass that people who shop at Amazon for books tend to prefer Kindle ebooks, it would be pretty silly for us to keep linking to the Amazon pages for the physical copies of books. And why link to the Kindle ebook page when we could link to a commission-generating page at Powell’s or IndieBound? Even considering the point we made yesterday about big-ticket items, we are a site that covers books and appeals to avid readers, and most of the commissions The Millions earns via the Amazon program are earned on books. There are many other literary and culture-oriented sites that fit this same profile and link to Amazon. If Amazon’s evolution closes the door on these sites, it will make it all the more difficult for these sites to become economically viable and it will be a blow to literary and culture discussion on the web. On the other hand, it will be an opportunity for indies to compete with Amazon.
One of the key points tucked away in yesterday’s installment was that, even as the business model of book coverage in print fails and online coverage rushes to fill the void, there’s nothing keeping online coverage from the fate that has beset print coverage.
In light of everything that’s going on with the Kindle, a decentralized alternative to Amazon’s Associates program, like the one that IndieBound has been ramping up, becomes more intriguing, but such alternatives have a long way to go before they can offer a value proposition that can compete with the incumbent.
A better, far more realistic, and completely obvious solution for supporting book coverage online is advertising – whose current inefficacy, you may remember, was what made Amazon attractive in the first place. In theory, two factors recommend online advertising to potential advertisers and marketers. The infrastructure is already there – building an affiliate program from scratch is no easy task nor is it a sensible option for many advertisers – and it’s much cheaper than trying to reach a similar audience via print advertising.
If the email inboxes of Millions contributors are any indication, there is currently plenty of interest in reaching a readership like that of The Millions, but not much interest in paying for it. There are always going to be books that don’t jibe with our editorial focus, but we have no such restrictions on advertisements. (This isn’t to say that any serious book journalist doesn’t welcome a well-targeted email.)
In his part one of this series, Garth noted how the conglomerated publishing industry has shelled out less and less money for the advertisements that support The New York Times Book Review and other, now defunct, book review sections. Perhaps part of that same cash-saving strategy has been to make scattershot pitches to bloggers in order generate some free publicity. But as Garth also discussed, the quality and readership of book coverage offered by the top bloggers and a number of impressive new online magazines is only increasing. Meanwhile, no longer the new kids on the block, as these sites professionalize further and their own editorial voices mature, they rely less on these pitches to shape coverage. The publishing industry can either try to reach the readers of these sites through advertising, or it can allocate money and time trying to cajole coverage out of increasingly inundated writers and editors. (Our own biggest advertiser, via the blogads at right, is Xlibris, the self-publishing outfit.) By getting serious about supporting book coverage online as it once did in print, publishers can hope to enjoy the same symbiotic relationship that Amazon now has with thousands of small sites.
However, we shouldn’t expect an increasingly struggling publishing industry to shoulder the load. When I worked with Bud Parr on the short-lived literary blog ad network Brainiads, the holy grail was securing advertisers from outside the publishing industry. Brainiads wasn’t able to meet this goal. So far, this development hasn’t materialized elsewhere and, in all likelihood, will be delayed by the current economic downturn. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, however. The audience for online book coverage is actually quite attractive for many advertisers, generally well educated and well off, and in the most likely scenario, some enterprise will make good on what Brainiads hoped to do (it occurs to me that the NYT would be an intriguing candidate), and, with a dedicated sales force, will reach out to companies to offer ads on a basket of book- and culture-focused sites with an attractive readership.
Until that day, book coverage online will remain rather precarious, for better as well as for worse. For smaller blogs, it is often largely a labor of love. For mid-sized, independent sites, the business model rests on flawed options like Amazon’s program and piecemeal revenue via existing ad networks. At the largest sites, including the online arms of venerable institutions like the NYTBR, book coverage depends on the dwindling profitability of news corporations as a whole.
Even 15 years in, the web is still the wild west. There aren’t a lot of rules, and literary sites have adapted and experimented in order to find a model that works. Now, even as much of the literary ecosystem endures a period of severe distress, one of the sustaining revenue sources, Amazon, is big enough to make a huge play, opening a whole new market, but raising plenty of red flags along the way. In many ways, this is representative of the historically uneasy relationship between commerce and culture. The hope is that book coverage, struggling mightily in print, can enact a land grab of its own online and find a niche that may ultimately prove secure.
So, think about this: In the last 5 to 10 years the way we consume all sorts of media has changed drastically, everything, essentially, except books. From a new Business Week article:”Every other form of media has gone digital — music, newspapers, movies,” says Joni Evans, a top literary agent who just left the William Morris Agency to start her own company that will focus on books and technology. “We’re the only industry that hasn’t lived up to the pace of technology. A revolution is around the corner.”The idea here is that a confluence of improving hardware, reader readiness and the prevalence of digitized books are setting the stage for the digital revolution to finally reach the world of books.In a minimal sense, the hardware already exists in the form of Treos and similar handhelds which some people find comfortable enough to use as a book delivery device, but just around the corner is “digital ink” and “e paper.” I had once thought that such technology only existed in the realm of science fiction but was surprised to find during my graduate new media journalism studies that these technologies are not far off and are much anticipated by some (and dreaded by others) in the journalism business. Between current handhelds and the “e paper” future are dedicated reader devices set to come out this year. The Business Week article references the Sony Reader, which I’ve heard is astounding in its ability to make reading off of a screen feel like reading off of a page. Last spring, Jason Kottke tried out a Sony device that presumably uses similar technology and was quite taken with it. But even this will be a far cry from “e paper.” For a peek at that technology, take a look at the slideshow that accompanies the Business Week article.The other two pieces of the puzzle – reader readiness and digitized books – are already in place. People are used to consuming their media on handheld devices and I think many, especially younger folks, would like to be able to do this more. Meanwhile, between Google and the publishing companies trying to compete with it, it seems like we’re approaching a future when all books will be available digitally.An obvious response to all of this is to wonder whether or not the book as we know it will die. I don’t think that question is as pertinent as it seems. In all likelihood, books, like magazines and newspapers, will be marginalized somewhat, still available in their current forms, but not necessarily thought of as tethered to paper and bindings. The content, of course, will live on, and these new ways of reading books will allow them to evolve as they have evolved since words were first written on papyrus.One side note. From the article referenced above:George Saunders, a short story author and professor of English at Syracuse University, says he’d like a way to get his work out to readers more quickly. After the scandal broke over James Frey’s falsehoods in his hit book A Million Little Pieces, Saunders penned a humorous essay stemming from the events. It was a confession to Oprah Winfrey that all of the fiction he’d written had, in fact, been true. But Saunders had a hard time getting the piece published quickly, and now it feels dated. “There might be a different model for a literary community that’s quicker, more real-time, and involves more spontaneity,” he says.George! Such a thing already exists. If you had a blog, you could have posted it there. (And how awesome would a blog by George Saunders be). If you don’t want to start a blog yourself, feel free to send your spur of the moment pieces my way and I’ll happily post them here for (potentially) millions and millions to see.Update: George Saunders responds via email:George Saunders here. Just wanted to thank you for the mention at The Millions. Great site. I’ve considered a blog but knowing how obsessive I am, worried that I might get consumed by it and my family would expire and my house crumble to dust. Plus I worry about how much I would have to pay myself to keep my blog supplied with content. My fear is that, knowing I was working for myself, I would start cheating myself, only submitting my worst pieces, then get into a labor dispute with myself and never speak to me again.
The Gutenberg Bible is a book of extraordinary beauty. One might even say it exudes beauty: its gleaming hand-tooled leather cover beckons to the hands to touch, to open, to reveal what lies inside. The day I saw it, it was sitting on the library table like a fat monarch laid in state, a foot wide by nearly a foot and a half long, light reflecting off the metal cornerpieces a binder had affixed for its protection half a millennium before. I asked Paul Needham, the librarian at Princeton’s Scheide Library, if I should put on gloves. He shook his head. Linen rag is not disturbed by finger oils, while calfskin in fact thanks them. I raised the solid wood-and-leather board. It opened right onto the text: two perfect jet-black columns, the ink still glossy after all this time. I turned one massive page, and then the next, intoxicated by the touch, the smell, the grace of that black block against the broad and creamy margins. To my amazement, I was leafing through the most famous and valuable book in the world, the first major volume made with metal type — the Ur-book of the age of print. Yet beyond all these superlatives, it was simply beautiful.
This volume, one of 48 that survive, was crafted with exquisite care roughly 560 years ago. Its makers — one inventor, one scribe, and one merchant who dealt in books — chose for each page the crispest letterforms, the purest linen, the ideal proportions of the golden section. In short, they selected the finest possible form to clothe the most sacred text of their age, the Christian Scriptures. I studied this book for several years, and have come to think that it has much to tell our age as well. For this Biblia latina, more than any other book, makes one thing clear: the more we value a text, the more we desire to fix it in the world, to grant it permanence. Today, as we rush headlong into the digital age, it seems to me that a similar tendency can be discerned. For against all expectation, we readers maintain our stubborn attachment to physical books, as though what they contained were somehow sacred.
By now most of us are heartily sick of the print versus e-book debate. It was framed wrong from the start: as a Manichean proposition, one or the other, either-or. Fortunately, we have our own experience now to instruct us — as well as the long history of the book. The evolution of reading technologies is both “broken and continuous,” in the words of the book historian John Pettegree; each successive form coexists with the one it replaces for some time. Most of us read some things on screen, other things in print; seven years after the invention of the Kindle, readers are answering this question for themselves. We need only look back to the first age of print to see that this is how technologies evolve. The hand copying of manuscripts by scribes did not vanish in 1454, when Johann Gutenberg and his colleagues unveiled the new system of printing with movable type. Nor did it die out completely when Aldus Manutius invented the killer app for print in 1500 in Venice, the handheld personal book — nor even in 1517, when Martin Luther’s 95 printed theses sounded the death knell for clerical rule. Hand copying persisted well into the 16th century, for special texts desired by wealthy rulers and clergy. Even today, fine letterpress printing and calligraphy are used for luxury editions of the classics for a similar clientele. For a time, and for a particular purpose, old technology persists. Where then, in 2015, do we stand with the printed book?
Beneath the barrage of e-hype, it turns out that the humble codex — the Latin term for books with spines and leaves — is holding its own. The statistics can appear confounding, but essentially the market is settling out. It is true that overall book sales have been dropping for some time. The American market saw a drop from 770 million copies sold in 2009 to 635 million in 2014 (the figures were 229 million and 181 million for the U.K.) according to Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Book, the main industry tracker. Given all the other ways we spend our leisure time today, that’s not surprising. More tellingly, the rate of e-book buying has leveled off after years of explosive growth. E-books now comprise less than a third of all books sold. The first flush of digital adoption has passed, it seems; hardcover sales (particularly for picture books and adult nonfiction) have held up well, Nowell told the Digital Book World conference in January. It is paperbacks that have been cannibalized by e-books. This picture will naturally shift as we move ever forward into new digital experiences. But I find it remarkable that at a time of massive digital immersion, a majority still prefers to consume their reading the old-fashioned way.
The physical places where such books are bought aren’t dying either. The independent brick-and-mortar bookshop is slowly reviving in America, with glimmers of a similar rebound in Britain. The numbers are nowhere near what they were before the big chains and Amazon, but last year more new bookstores opened in the United States than in any year since the 2008 recession, the American Booksellers Association reported (for the record, 59). Sales of physical books at Britain’s leading chain, Waterstone’s, rose five percent in December, and the British Library’s chairman, Rory Keating, recently took a stab at explaining why visitor figures rose 10 percent in 2014. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, apparently: the more screen-based peoples’ lives become, the more they value physical artefacts and experiences, he theorized.
At the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association convention held last fall in Tacoma, Wash., I learned that the people who love books enough to consecrate their lives to them have noticed this, too. With a gaggle of other authors, I was flogging my book in a massive speed-dating exercise that consisted of telling table after table of retailers what my novel was about. As I brandished my own beautiful hardback (of which more in a moment), we got to talking about the surprising appeal of hardbacks in this digital day and age. Over the past five years, they all agreed, hardbacks have not only held their own, they have gotten more beautiful. It’s almost as if, one bookseller mused, publishers understood that if one went to the trouble of producing or buying a printed book anymore, it had better be for a darned good reason. The very printness of print, it seemed, was its USP — its unique selling point. If a print book can’t offer something more than a cheaply produced paperback, the e-book wins the day. There’s simply no reason to buy it.
Can we define what this “more” is that a physical book provides? A lot has been written on this subject, usually centering on the notion of “tactility.” The tactile appeal of real ink on pages certainly plays a role. Most of us don’t know exactly why we love the soft oatmeal feel of good paper stock, the nubby ruffle of the deckle edge, the weight of the fabric-covered boards. It’s powerful, though, this hunger that we humans have for touch. Our skin is our largest perceptual organ, our first, most primordial sense; stroking a pet, or a page, releases occitocin, the hormone that brings joy. Even so, I’m convinced that the hold of the book goes even deeper. The best books give readers a profound aesthetic and intellectual experience, like our 15th century Bible: they are objects of both beauty and permanence.
As Hannah Arendt observed, mankind is homo faber: man as maker. We are tool-makers, art-makers, and respond to what we make, especially those things that are well made. What makes an object attractive, desirable — in a word, beautiful — if not each detail that reveals the care, the close attention of its maker? The evidence is all around us, from coveted Apple products hyper-designed by an obsessive Steve Jobs to luxury handbags and brushed-steel German kitchens. Nor is the pleasure we derive from such beautiful objects only aesthetic. Beauty is a kind of cognate for excellence: we are also viscerally responding to the maker’s attention to quality, which signals a certain kind of seriousness. Decades later I still recall the Heritage Library set of classics in my parents’ living room. Handsomely set in type, stamped with gold embossing and illustrated with powerful black woodcuts, these books sent the clearest message with their heft and beauty: pay attention, this is good. I should mention here that the gorgeous black textura letters of The Gutenberg Bible were not the first metal letters in the world; Gutenberg’s first efforts were crude, unlovely. It took time and extraordinary focus and skill to craft those letterforms we so admire, most likely the work of Gutenberg’s apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, a gifted calligrapher.
The painstaking work of craftsmanship thus results in things we can hold and admire. And hidden deep inside this tactile pleasure is the source of its real power. A well-made book, like any well-made thing, exudes a sense of permanence. The better it is made, the longer it will last — perhaps for centuries. In letterpress printing, this idea is captured by what printers call “the dwell:” the moment when inked metal letters touch the sheet. The letters dwell upon the page, as we dwell upon a word, or musicians dwell upon a note. It’s a word that marries a sense of duration, of permanence, to the act of fastening a text upon a sheet. Which texts do we choose to treat this way? The answer, I think, is obvious. The deeper, more universal, and important the “content,” the more we wish to grant it permanence. What we enshrine in print are texts we truly cherish, and deem sacred. This impulse is as old as cuneiform and scrolls, as old as the first prophets of the Abrahamic religions, instructed to preserve the Word of God. “Serious readers,” too, are members of this tribe. For is it not they — we — who felt most stricken at the thought the book had died, who perceived it as an existential threat? To some of us, it is literature itself that is sacred, insofar as it has become the place we turn for meaning, and for explication of the world.
The permanence of this heritage is an ever-present concern. We are haunted as we should be by the loss of the library of Alexandria, and by the sheer chance that saved the classics of antiquity in Constantinople. I for one am loath to hand our civilization’s most priceless works over to a digital “cloud” that will vanish when the gas runs out. The most important thing to remember about Gutenberg’s world-changing invention is not that it spread learning, or even democracy, the historian John Man reminds us. It is that printing gave mankind the means to preserve what it could not preserve before: “the entire cultural DNA of our species.” We turn away from such a gift at our own peril.
Over the nearly 2,000 years of its existence, the book has shaped us as effectively as we have shaped the book. There’s increasing evidence that the physical form of the codex mirrors the processing operations of the brain, a fact that should not surprise, considering the two have co-evolved. And this very permanence finds an analogue in the reading mind: our brains, it turns out, are wired to better store and retain what we read in print than things we read on screen. A print book conveys the meaning of a text uniquely. Its multiple sensory aspects — size, paper stock, ink, impression, art, typography — encode a staggering array of information. This physical structure creates a spatial construct for the mind that helps it navigate, according to Anne Mangan, a Norwegian reading researcher. It is useful to me to think of a printed book as a landscape through which the mind roams, touching branches, remembering paths. Like the internal “memory palaces” that medieval scholars used, the physical spaces of the book function as aids to recall. Turning pages helps us build “a scaffold on which memory and information are automatically arranged,” says Mangan.
The science is by no means settled. But it appears the physical space of the book both enourages us to focus in a way we do not on screen, and gives us clues — how far we’ve gone, where on the page that quote appeared — that help us to better remember. There is a third element that, to me, is equally compelling: a book we crack with our two hands creates an actual physical space for reverie that functions as an oasis outside daily life, a cocoon in space and time. An e-book can perform this function too, although I wonder if it takes us quite as far away. After all, these tactile qualities are part and parcel of the world the book creates. In the end, refusal of the e-book comes down to a refusal of sensory impoverishment. With all the senses we possess, why settle only for the eyes?
It’s no accident that we’re currently witnessing a revival of the handmade in every field, from handicrafts sold on Etsy to Maker Faires where the digerati escape to shape things with their hands. It is especially gratifying to see this happening in the arts of the book. The past decade has seen a huge boom in letterpress printing and bookbinding; young people all over the world are rediscovering the joy of making books as Gutenberg once did. “I can only liken it to making music yourself or cooking,” says Erik Spiekermann, a renowned typographer who has just opened a letterpress studio in Berlin. “Setting your own type is an essential experience, like making your own pizza, preparing your own food.” We readers, too, are drawn to these basic materials; we too yearn to hold a well-made book in our two hands.
This past spring I watched in wonder as the designers at Harper Books expressed that love of craft in their own work. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the founding Harper brothers were themselves printers: a case of type is displayed in the firm’s new offices on lower Broadway. Even so I was unprepared for how my story of the making of The Gutenberg Bible would inspire the people charged with putting it in print. It was as if the subject itself called forth the highest degree of craftsmanship, from exquisite page design to deckle edges and a die cut on the cover. They understood, I think, that a book about the first great book must strive for that same excellence and beauty.
I feel confident that there will always be a place for books we touch and hold. Some of us will read on phones or tablets; others will keep reaching for the real thing, the same way the great medieval printer Anton Koberger imagined his customers doing in 1493, when he sent out his Nuremberg Chronicle with this printed wish:
Speed now, Book…
A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire
And read you with great attention.
Image Credit: Wikipedia