The ‘future book’ is here, but it’s not what we expected
In the 1990s, Future Bookism hit a kind of beautiful fever pitch. We were so close. Brown University professor Robert Coover, in a 1992 New York Times op-ed titled “The End of Books,” wrote of the future of writing: “Fluidity, contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, discontinuity are the hypertext buzzwords of the day, and they seem to be fast becoming principles, in the same way that relativity not so long ago displaced the falling apple.”
Things didn’t quite work out that way; Amazon swallowed up pretty much all the burgeoning e-book market, with Kindles that are “as interactive as a potato”.
Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.
It’s an interesting take, for sure, but I can’t help but think this publishing revolution is marvellous for authors but, as a reader, I’m still pining for that promised interactivity. I don’t think it’s enough to say we’ve got Wikipedia and YouTube videos and email newsletters and somehow we can bundle them all up and consider the resulting unstructured, messy, unvalidated heap a Future Book.
Tim Carmody responds to Craig’s essay with a call to pursue an older approach.
Towards the Future Book
I think the utopian moment for the future of the book ended not when Amazon routed its vendors and competitors, although the Obama DOJ deserves some blame in retrospect for handing them that win. I think it ended when the Google Books settlement died, leading to Google Books becoming, basically abandonware, when it was initially supposed to be the true Library of Babel.
For Tim, that goal—“the digitization of all printed matter, available for full-text search and full-image browsing on any device”—is where the future of the book should lie.
Will Self, meanwhile, is in a less positive mood.
The printed world in peril
As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.
I’ve been a fan of his for many years now, his lack of optimism notwithstanding.
At the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the exiled hoboes return to the cities, which have been destroyed by the nuclear conflicts of the illiterate, bringing with them their head-borne texts, ready to restart civilization. And it’s this that seems to me the most prescient part of Bradbury’s menacing vision. For I see no future for the words printed on paper, or the art forms they enacted, if our civilization continues on this digital trajectory: there’s no way back to the future—especially not through the portal of a printed text.