bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

‘The Book is Dead’ – again

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 27 July, 2008

Today The Observer announces the death of the book, once again. And if the printed word were come to a full-stop, its nemesis could prove to be English’s most popular vowel: the book, the argument goes, could fall victim to the ebook.

To be fair to the Sunday newspaper, it does not assume the end has come, and presents the eventuality as a hypothesis, on which it invites two columnists to discourse pro and contra. Peter Conrad acts out the role of cultured curmudgeon who prefers the touch of his old books rather than the lifelessness of a plug-in gadget. Novelist Naomi Alderman, on the other side, enthuses what the world could be like, if the potential of an on-line, ebook Middlemarch were to be realised:

imagine reading Middlemarch and, at a touch of a button, being able to look at images of the same paintings and sculptures Dorothea looks at in Rome or, for academics, being able to see links to all articles which reference the passage you’re reading.

If we are going to let our imagination gambol so spritely, we could wonder further and posit what the reaction of Casaubon (either the fictional Edward or the historical Isaac) might be. Reader, you may detect a tone of scepticism in my voice. I do doubt that what Ms Alderman would like to happen will become a reality in a matter of even years: it would require an investment for which few will envisage a suitable return. But, if it were all to happen, what would have been created is an exciting and different experience – not a replacement Middlemarch but a new one.

And this is the point, to which Conrad alludes, but which is not spelt out in full. As historians of the book can tell you, a book is not just a text: it matters whether the paper is Bible-thin or lavishly thick like a Folio (what a contrast to the Renaissance, when the thinness of parchment was a sign of quality). The typeface has an impact of how you read, as does the mise-en-page, the white space around the text, the presence or absence of footnotes, the elegance of the opening initial, the availability of page-numbers and running-headers. This is not to say that virtual versions of the text lacks the subtle but essential accoutrements of the book – though some, like touch and (for me, personally, so important) scent, can not be replicated, without, that is, the upgrade of a scratch-and-sniff card. Virtual volumes too could pay attention to the minutiae of typeface and presentation, but they rarely do, as yet.

As yet: this is a revolution which, however much it rushes at heady speed, is nowhere near its finishing line. It might want to congratulate itself on what it has achieved but that is so small besides what could be done, in the fulness of time. If only what is happening now was truly compared with previous information technology revolutions, then we might learn how really to harness the new possibilities. It is symptomatic of the unwittingly ahistorical approach that The Observer perpetrates a common solecism in its double-spread: it provides with its article ‘a history of the printed word’, implicitly suggesting that books in Europe did not exist before the mid-fifteenth century. But, of course, books were produced and could, in their own way, be published in their manuscript form. Gutenberg’s invention was not the invention of the book, but of another stage in its history – and one which has still not replaced the manuscript entirely. Nor was it an immediate success, or a definite boon to all readers: this was no revolution that shook the world in a matter of days or even years – centuries, more like. The dead-ends, the collapsed economic ventures, the defeats for scholarship: what failed will teach us as much as what, eventually and sometimes unexpectedly, succeeded. What is happening now is unprecedented but not unparallelled, and a sensitivity – even a humility – in the face of what’s gone before could help us see further. In the meantime, the old-fashioned – though, in the longue durée, new-fangled – printed text in hardcopy but softback probably has a few more years to go.