“The book is dead” is a proclamation frequently heard today, almost to the point of banality. Since the conceptualisation of a hypothetical proto-hypertext device called Memex in 1945, there have countless commentaries on both sides of the bookish aisle defending the survival or predicting the inevitable demise of the physical book. On one hand, the book has battle scars to prove its tenacity – it has survived the onslaught of radio, television, and internet, all of which were predicted to eliminate it. On the other hand, it is undeniable that many people have switched to reading on electronic devices and the relentless advancement of technology forebodes a future where the physical book has no place in society except as an object of curiosity. Many studies surrounding this debate have focused on the reading experience and usages of the physical book as compared to its digital counterpart. For instance, Baron (2015) highlights the disadvantages of reading on screens, including the risks of multitasking and being distracted. She further argues that such reading habits discourage deep reading and may affect the way we approach reading in future.
However, with the rate at which technology is advancing, it is not difficult to conceive of a future where such disadvantages may be overcome by new reading devices. Alternatively, our reading habits may change overtime to adapt to these devices and we would no longer have such obstacles. While nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty, it is likely that the digital will continue to make its presence felt in our lives, including our engagement with books and reading. The question to be asked is not whether the book or the Kindle is better, but what role the book will play in the digital age where the Kindle, or its subsequent iterations, is likely to stay for a long time.
First, an examination of perceptions towards the book object is needed to establish what it has stood for throughout history, and what it could mean to citizens of the digital age. The book, in its various physical manifestations, has accumulated many cultural and symbolic meanings since the ancient past. Cummings (2013) traces the symbolic power of textual material back to the ancient Near East and Egypt, when they were sacred objects possessed only by the priestly caste. The book object has also taken on mystical values in other religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam where the iconoclastic tendencies of these religions have led to the “fetishistic practices of preservation or worship of the material form of the sacred book” (Cummings, 2013, pp.95). Feather (1986) adds that with these religions, “even among those who no longer adhere to those beliefs the symbolic significance of the book has substantially survived” (pp.23). He also characterises the book as a symbol of knowledge in literate societies. For other non-textual uses, Watson (2007) cites examples of books in rituals, divination, oath-taking, as talisman, ornament, or in interior decoration, demonstrating that above and beyond their contents, books are cultural objects and have a rich material history from the societies and times in which they circulated.
However, many of the associations that the book as object has accumulated throughout history are increasingly being forgotten today. Nunberg (1993) characterises the majority of books in modern societies as having “no cultural burden at all” (pp.14). Phillips (2007) adds that in this age, the “new generation [is] brought up without the same unequivocal respect for the book” (pp.550). In a similar vein, Landow (1996) observes that for students, “books embody ill-designed, fragile, short-lived objects,” and these young people “have lost much of the experience of the book as we recall – and occasionally idealise – it” (pp.211). Nonetheless, there is a sense that even if we do not revere the book as a sacred object, we still generally view it positively as a symbol of learning and knowledge. Particularly in the digital age, defenders of the book, such as Baron, have argued for the continued importance of physical books in countering the distractions of electronic devices.
However, Price (2019) suggests that we “fetishize books because we imagine that they can protect us from our distractability, our sloth, the weakness of will” (pp.72) in a digital age. She highlights that the assumptions we make of books today are very different from how they were actually used in the past, where many books were meant to be skimmed and discarded. In fact, book ownership was not always common or even desired throughout history. When we pit physical books and the patterns of reading a physical book against their digital counterparts, Price argues that we are in fact idealising the reading experience and the ways in which books were used.
In fact, books have not always been seen in good light. Socrates was known to be opposed to writing, preferring oral traditions and memory for the transmission of knowledge (see Finkelstein & McCleery, 2013, pp.32-4). Greek intellectuals believed that writing will destroy the practice of debate and storytelling (Borsuk, 2018, pp.55), and O’Donnell (1996) reminds us of the fifteenth century when printed books were seen to be suspicious. There was resistance towards the mass production of books because they may lead to the distribution of unwanted opinions. Price (2019) suggests that much of such history may have been “airbrushed” out so that print can be portrayed as a solution to the digital-age malaise of short attention spans and impatience.
Young (2015) goes further to argue that the publishing industry today has evolved to such an undesirable state that the book has become a commodity product which is produced mainly for profit and not for the promulgation of ideas. As such, massive numbers of books which do not further human knowledge and collective wisdom are being produced. He argues that the physical book as an object must be eliminated so that a new digital future can be forged for the book culture. Eco (1996) seemed to agree when he says, “There are too many books…If the computer network succeeds in reducing the quantity of published books, this would be a paramount cultural improvement” (pp.301).
Yet, even as the calls for conversion to digital formats are getting louder, the book object seems to have an enduring and lingering, albeit diminishing, presence in our lives. The survival of the physical book in the future must depend on more than nostalgia from an idealised perception of what the book was or can do for us. In other words, there must be something inherently irreplaceable in the materiality of the book object which will guarantee its place in the digital future. In fact, the physical book could play a key role in an area where digital technology has claimed much ground: preservation.
Today, technological advancement has provided ways for us to preserve the contents of the codices, manuscripts, and other forms of books by digitising and converting them into machine readable files which, when uploaded online, can be accessed from anywhere in the world. Libraries, archives, and organisations (such as Google) all over the world have digitised books as a way to ensure that the content within books will live beyond material deterioration and to expand the access of these materials. Yet, the book in its various physical forms may ironically be the better way to preserve these textual materials.
There is an underlying and often unexamined assumption that the digitisation of books is a good way to preserve them. In his book, Baker (2002) delivers a scathing attack on libraries and librarians who have become the very purveyors of book destruction by embarking on an ill-planned mission to digitise and thereafter discard paper-based collections, replacing them with microfilm duplicates which are difficult to use and deteriorate more rapidly than paper. Responding to Baker’s impassioned contention, Darnton (2010) contextualises these examples within the specific time period of 1940s to 1980s in the United States and points out that such extreme forms of “preservation” are no longer practised among libraries today. Nonetheless, he echoes Baker’s concern with the longevity of digital preservation, pointing out that hardware, software, and digital formats become obsolete at an alarming rate, and that the best preservation method for the physical book may be the physical book itself, which requires nothing more than the human eye and mind to decipher.
One of the key players of digital preservation is the Internet Archive, a non-profit organisation endeavouring to build “a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form” (Internet Archive, n.d.). Interestingly, they have started a physical archive in order to preserve an authoritative copy of each book they digitise. Taking reference from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault initiative, this physical archive is meant for the long-term storage of physical material in controlled environments. One purpose for this storage is verification, so that the original copy can be consulted if there are disputes on the digitised copy (Kahle, 2011). There is an implicit recognition in this initiative that digital copies cannot be assumed to have unquestionable authenticity or longevity in terms of preservation. The fact that the Internet Archive, an organisation devoted to building digital collections, is starting an archive to preserve physical books speaks volumes about the important role of the book object for preservation.
However, in today’s technological age, textual materials are not always produced in physical forms. In such cases, printing and keeping physical copies may not necessarily be the best form of preservation. Perhaps the key to preservation is to consider the original format in which these texts were produced and to preserve them in those formats. One challenge facing the preservation of digital material is the unprecedented amount being produced every day. Palfrey (2015) warns that in the digital age, we will lose much more of the information we produce because of the massive amounts that are being generated and the rate at which formats are being made obsolete. Comparatively, it seems that the preservation of physical books can be a much more manageable task undertaken without the extensive use of digital technology.
Another reason why digitised books cannot completely replace their physical originals is the fundamentally different nature of e-books. On one hand, a single device can simultaneously contain thousands of dematerialised e-books, while on the other, a physical book usually embodies a specific text and commands unambiguous presence in its materiality. Even if the contents of a book have been faithfully captured in a high-resolution digital file, it does not necessarily mean that the book has been “preserved” because the physical characteristics of the book are essential qualities which cannot be digitised into the file. Texts become disembodied when they make the quantum leap from codex to e-book, and the mechanics of reading vis-à-vis electronic devices becomes drastically different.
Duguid (1996) warns against the unquestioning embrace of digital technologies as “progressively removing the material encumbrances from the ‘true’ information assumed to lie beneath them” (pp.80). He sees various formats of the book as technologies in their own right, and highlights that we need to pay attention to how such technologies and objects circulate within specific social contexts. For instance, when the miniature illustrations of a book of hours, a personalised prayer book used during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, is seen in the same dimensions as a page from the Book of Kells on a computer screen, we lose the sense of how physical size also provides socially and culturally specific meanings to these items.
Digitisation advocates who contend that e-books can replace physical books often base their claims on the assumption that texts are independent from their vehicles of transmission, and therefore the information we receive should not be different whether we read physical or electronic books. Nunberg (2006) questions this assumption by critically examining the meaning of “information” throughout history and its transferability across mediums. In particular, he urges us to consider if digital duplicates can transmit the same “information” as their originals in hardcopy, and if the meaning we derive from texts are only linguistic in nature.
It may appear counter-intuitive to imagine that the physical object affects meaning or our interpretations of texts. In approaching the question, Chartier (1995) situates the digital revolution “within history over the longue durée” (pp.20). He argues that throughout history, the respective book formats have shaped the texts within them according to “the laws of that form” (pp.2) and meanings are “inseparable from the material conditions and physical forms that make the text available to readers” (pp.22). In highlighting the risk of “losing the intelligibility of a textual culture that is inseparable from the objects that have transmitted them” (Chartier, 2004, pp.150), he characterises the forced transference of text from codex to screen as an act of violence (Chartier, 1995, pp.22). In the digital formats, these texts become fragmented, decontextualised, and retain only semantic meanings, which is just one component among many in our reading experience. They also lose what Pearson (2008) refers to as their “artefactual potential,” found in the unique marginalia and marks from ownership, censorship, amendments, and acts of veneration – all of which can only be fully appreciated by being in the presence of the physical object, and not by looking at images on the screen. These incorporeal digital manifestations may ameliorate logistical problems such as storage and portability, but they are impoverished specters of the original book due to the disinheritance of their materiality.
Merkoski (2013), an e-book evangelist who was part of the team that developed Amazon’s Kindle, recognises that the presence of a physical book provides an anchor for the reader, engages the senses, and adds a different layer of meaning to our reading of texts. However, he maintains that “reading is a technology-based experience. That means the culture of reading will evolve and change like all technologies do” (pp.6). In other words, textual material of the future may be manufactured exclusively in digital formats, and our reading cultures, behaviours, and preferences would adjust correspondingly to such shifts. Our discussion thus far, pertaining mainly to books produced in the past or in recent years, may not be relevant to the “books” of the future. Yet, the physical book object can still remain relevant in the future if it is reinvented and its potential fully utilised. It is such possibilities that we will examine next.
Throughout history, the book has seen various formats, including papyrus, parchment, and codex. While we may roughly plot out a timeline of such formats, the reality is that different formats often exist alongside each other for a long time and formats never completely replace each other. Eco (1996) observes that “in the history of culture it has never happened that something has simply killed something else. Something has profoundly changed something else” (pp.304). Borsuk (2018) also provides several examples of how formats of the book (for instance, parchment and papyrus) have existed alongside each other for as long as centuries. In the likely event that the future sees more books being published exclusively in digital formats, the question to ask is not whether the physical book will die, but how it will change.
Pressman (2009) sees the digital threat as an opportunity for artistic “experimentation with the media-specific properties of print illuminated by the light of the digital.” Using Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts as an example, she argues that literary works have exploited “the power of the print page in ways that draw attention to the book as a multimedia format, one informed by and connected to digital technologies.” In these works, the medium of the work as a physical book is essential to the reader’s consumption and understanding of its contents. For example, The Raw Shark Texts revolves around an enigmatic protagonist who is trying to escape a conceptual shark that feeds off human memory and the sense of self. The conceptual shark of Hall’s novel emerges and is embodied through concrete poetry and flip pages, activating the reader’s physical engagement with the pages as the creature emerges. The novel’s engagement with themes of disembodiment and the boundaries between text and reality are physically manifested through the object that the readers hold in their hands. Pressman (2019) explains that in such texts, the “aesthetic of bookishness is not merely nostalgia for print…[these texts] harness the power and potential…of new media into print and onto paper.” In other words, the fears and threats felt by an advancing digital age can be stimulus for literature to transform the physical book as a medium by which to provide a response, and to create “new incarnations and readership.”
Another example is J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S, which comprises a book that has been heavily annotated and bookmarked with various clippings, maps, postcards, and photographs. The book itself is a fictious novel titled Ship of Theseus, but the reader’s experience is not simply inreading the “book.” The printed text is just as important as the annotations and various paper ephemera inserted within its pages. Multiple narratives unfold as these pages are turned, within the world of Ship of Theseus, as well as the story of two young people who are reading Ship of Theseus and annotating the book. S celebrates and transforms the role of physical material, in all its richness, tactility, and visual appeal, highlighting that the most interesting stories can sometimes only be read outside of a computer screen, in the paper material of our lives.
Other than literature, physical books can be works of art too. Benton (2007) reminds us that “the material features of books have always been an essential part of their appeal and meaning…often the physical book is not merely a peripheral vehicle for textual content but is an essential element of what we perceive and interpret” (pp.494). The tactile and visual experience of books has always been a part of the book, from the earliest manuscripts which were richly illustrated to convey religious concepts and stories. Since the literacy rate was not high then, these books would have been admired mainly for their visual qualities. As the printing press developed in the fifteenth century, books began to shift from visual to textual. However, artists such as Albrecht Dürer and poets like William Blake continued to produce works in which text and image are equally important. At times, Dürer’s images dominated the pages such that the text seems an excuse for producing the art (Benton, 2007, pp.502). Blake is known to have overseen the entire process of his books’ production, including the creation of engravings which accompanied his poems. However, today images remain largely subordinate to the text in many books, and an adult may be frowned upon for indulging in a “picture book.”
Yet, the importance of images can be recuperated, particularly in the digital age where books which are purely textual are increasingly being read on electronic devices. Artists started to create physical books known as artists’ books in the 1960s, with many tracing the phenomenon to Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Drucker (1995) defines the artist’s book as one which “interrogates the conceptual or material form of the book as part of its intention, thematic interests, or production activities” (pp.3). These artists engage with the sculptural, kinetic, or visual qualities of the book, as well as the rich cultural symbolism it has accumulated throughout history. Herschend & Rogan’s The Thing The Book: A Monument to the Book as Object is an “exhibition” staged within the pages of a book, examining the physicality of a book and the rich histories associated with all parts of a book, including the endnotes, bookmark ribbons, footnotes, contents page, and epigraph. Rather than a scholarly textual treatise, various contributors have given their respective sections an artistic treatment, including a bookmark ribbon with a tongue-in-cheek instruction to “hand wash only.”
Another example is Italian artist Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, which is a richly illustrated tome of drawings and undecipherable writings. The various drawings, some of which are anatomical, seem to depict an alien civilisation with strange machines, creatures, and plants. The text and drawings are not meant to be interpreted for their meanings, as Serafini wanted to recreate the experience of children flipping through books meant for adults and not understanding their contents, but are nonetheless filled with a sense of wonder. The presentation of these drawings in a large physical book also evokes the old volumes we have inherited from past centuries, where reading them can transport us to a different time and civilisation. Codex Seraphinianus challenges the idea that reading a book is simply about understanding its contents. Rather, it underscores the importance of the physical experience of turning the pages and discovering the visual qualities in the layout, drawings, and colours of a book.
Such artists’ books are more than experiments with the book as a medium of expression. Artists’ books can remind us that when books were first made, they were considered works of art created by human hands. Each book object is unique and represents an artistic work. In the digital age where a single device can simultaneously be thousands of ebooks, the book object can return to its beginnings as a unique work of art by capitalising on the possibilities of its materiality.
Given its long history and the potential of the paper material, the book will more likely be a participant of the digital age rather than be completely eliminated by technology. While we must acknowledge the importance of the book object throughout history and its irreplaceable role in understanding the texts and cultures of human civilisation, we should not be trapped in nostalgia. As we revel in the smell of old books and touch of their crisp pages, we have to imagine a future for the object in our hands. The book in all its physical forms, such as parchment, papyrus, or codex, has even greater potential especially in the digital age to be an asset, and not a liability, to human culture and expression.
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