The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available now on Amazon and in all good bookstores.
There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me. Consider, for a moment, the ebook/paperbook divide. On the one side, the traditionalists, with their—okay, our—love of the objects that we call books. The texture of the paper, the beautiful dust jackets. Being able to see how much of a book remains to be read, as pages stack up on the left and diminish on the right. The ability to see two pages at once and have a sense of what’s coming. Writing in the margins.
On the other side stand the gadgeteers with their cold slim readers, packing entire libraries into a volume the size of a novella, flipping pages on a touchscreen. I don’t own a digital reader, but I understand why other people do. Aside from the natural joy of owning a shiny new gadget, there’s an undeniable appeal from a purely minimalist standpoint—why agonize over which two books to cram into your suitcase, when you can bring your entire library with you?—and I have to imagine that ebook aficionados have a much easier time of moving than I do. When I move to a new apartment, it’s a Herculean task involving towering mountains of impossibly heavy small boxes with labels like Fiction: Ames – Bellow and Theatre Books: Box 1 of 10. It isn’t pretty.
Digital readers and paper books have little in common. But both objects have considerable merit, and this is why I think we should combine the two.
The future of the book that I imagine involves an object that looks, in every detail, like a high-quality hardcover. The difference is that there’s no title visible on either the cover or the spine. When you first open the book, all the pages are blank. Hundreds of pages of high-quality paper—a slight sheen might hint at the underlying circuitry—with nothing on them. The cover is blank too.
You might mistake the object for a blank notebook, except for the discreet touchscreen on the inside of the front cover. Here you scroll through your library, and select the book you want to read. For old time’s sake, let’s say The Catcher in the Rye. Once you’ve made your selection the pages remain blank for just a heartbeat—the process taking place in the heart of the book’s machinery is, after all, quite complex—but then the famous orange carousel horse of the first edition dust jacket rises slowly out of the blankness of the front cover, like an image rising out of Polaroid film. JD Salinger‘s name appears on the spine above the publisher’s logo, and then all at once the pages begin to fill. The book is typesetting itself.
The first page is no longer blank. Beneath the Chapter One heading, the famous and incorrigible opener has appeared: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born…”
The object in your hands looks and feels like a book. The pages feel like paper. You flip through them, and all the words are there waiting for you; there’s no waiting for a screen to refresh. The object might even be made, with a judicious dash of library-scented accord from my favorite perfume shop, to smell like the books you grew up with. You can make notes on the pages if you wish, provided you use the special digital pen attached by means of a thin ribbon to the spine.
But suppose you get tired of reading Salinger after awhile, or you finish the book. You go back to your touchscreen just inside the front cover, and flip through your library until you find something that appeals to you. Select the new volume, and the process begins again. Just a moment of blankness, while Salinger’s carousel horse fades out. The notes you took in the margins have vanished, but they’ll be there again the next time you want to read The Catcher in the Rye.
And then, Leo Tolstoy‘s name on the spine. Turn the first page and the text of Salinger’s book has dissolved. The first line of the novel now reads as follows: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The book in your hands is now Anna Karenina.
It only sounds like magic. Electronic paper—flexible sheets of paper-like material, comprised in various versions of polymer, microcapsules of oil, arrays of electrodes—has been around since the ‘70s, when Nick Shelton at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center created the first sheet of the stuff. Research continued in the decades that followed, and in early 2010 LG debuted a new prototype: a sheet of electronic paper with the dimensions of a newspaper page, weighing only 130 grams.
In the photographs that accompanied the press release, the material holds a glassy patina; a man and a woman hold sheets of LG’s new paper in what looks like the Tokyo subway system, and the sheets hold the front page of a daily newspaper. It doesn’t quite look like paper, but it’s close. It’s so close.
Is there any reason why, a few years from now, when the technology’s become lighter and better and less expensive, we couldn’t make entire books out of this stuff? There are of course logistical problems to consider—how to manage the display of a 600-page novel on a device that only has 350 pages, for instance—but this sort of thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly insurmountable.
It seems to me that the failing of our digital readers to date is that the focus has been almost entirely on the content. Our earliest books were sublimely executed works of art, years and decades and entire lifetimes poured into the lettering and ornamentation of medieval manuscripts. The printing press changed all of this, of course, but the ghost of that early obsession with beauty has lingered. Beautiful books have remained with us, in ever-changing form, through all the seasons of publishing: gorgeous book jackets, impeccably designed interiors, gilt lettering on cloth. But digital readers have been focused solely on finding the best possible means of presenting the book’s words, of inventing the ideal flatscreen to display them on. I fear we’re nearing a point of forgetting the idea of books as objects, as works of art whose form, not just whose content, we might consider preserving.
The book in your hands has transformed itself into Anna Karenina, but why stop there? One of the major problems of reading is the difficulty of ignoring the chaotic world around you. We’ve all been stuck in airplanes with screaming small children. Because blocking out this sort of thing by sheer willpower alone can be impossible, I wonder if perhaps our books might be enlisted to help us out.
I read a fascinating article a few years back about directed-sound technology, and its potential for in use in museums. One of the aural problems of museums is that some patrons want to hear information about what they’re standing on front of, whereas others would vastly prefer to contemplate in silence. The idea with the directed-sound technology is that if you’d like to learn more about a particular display, you step into a specific location in the room—perhaps indicated by a circle of light projected onto the floor—and there, only there, at that particular point, in a projected column of ultrasonic sound, you hear a recorded voice explaining the nuances of 16th-century Chinese calligraphy or the finer details of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Directed-sound technology has advanced to the point where beams of sound can be directed at an individual in such a way that the people sitting on either side of them will hear nothing. All of this makes me think that the book, once the technology advances a little further and can be easily embedded without adding too much weight, should have a noise-canceling button. Click it and step into the circle of light; you’d be cast, all at once, into your own private aural landscape. Perhaps it might enable silence, or some sort of soothing ambient noise. Care would have to be taken not to zone out completely at, say, airport departure gates, but I think the concept has promise.
I was thinking the other day of sound-enabled picture books. It would be a strange and dazzling new form. Page upon page of gorgeous illustrations, with music, with text and spoken word that no one but the reader could hear. An interactive art project. Or imagine the more practical applications for travel books: on the page listing useful phrases for the country you’re traveling in, you could hear the pronunciation before you spoke, so as to avoid making a fool of yourself when you’re trying to order coffee in Slovakia.
For all my love of the electronic innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are certain tactile experiences that I’m not willing to surrender. The experience of turning pages is one of them.
I love machines, but I want the book I hold in my hands fifty years from now to look like the books I remember from childhood. I want to be able to see two pages at a time, I want to take notes in the margins, I want to flip backward to see what I missed. Most importantly, I want the bookstores I love to still exist in the future.
The conveniences of the digital age are inarguable. I’ve never really liked grocery shopping; it’s nice that now I can do it online at midnight. I feel the same way about buying shoes. But books? That’s something else entirely.
I imagine the bookstores of the future. They’d look very much like the bookstores of now, except it’s possible that they might be a little smaller; if most people are downloading books to machines, they’d need much less stock. A few people might still want to buy the old kind of book, the kind made out of paper, especially at author events. Those of us with the new books, the ones made out of electronic paper that can transform into other books in our hands, will browse for a while and then perhaps, if we happen to be carrying our new books with us, pay for and download the volumes we want to buy. Or perhaps we’ll buy books on a volume the size of a flash drive, to be downloaded to our new books when we get home later.
And then we’ll sit in parks and subways and on sofas, the same as we have since the invention of the printing press, and we’ll flip through the pages of our beautiful machines.