Book as Fluke: A Thought Experiment


What if the existence of books were a cosmic accident, not something irrevocably part of our evolution, not intrinsic to the human experience, but more or less the most profitable thing to be produced from a printing press, a function of commerce and retail and/or a function of religious or scholarly systems? What if the book perpetuated itself not out of necessity, but through a human desire for profits, ego inflation and prestige? Particularly when looking at contemporary attitudes toward the book, as Richard Nash discussed in his essay “The Business of Literature” (2013), books might be seen as culturally “important” partly because of a public relations campaign mounted by the father of spin, Edward Bernays:

“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

There is so much mythology and self-important discussion surrounding books that we sometimes forget the book is a technology, so old a technology it has disappeared into the background. A book as set of bound, typeset pages has nothing in particular to do with the survival of storytelling, reading or writing. But the advent of the printing press and the advent of the book are so closely connected that we tie the benefits and importance of the printing press (cheap and quick distribution of information) to the benefits and importance of the book (the vessel carrying the information). Perhaps they are inseparable throughout much of their history, but now that we’re undergoing another paradigm shift – a new way of distributing information quickly and cheaply, through the Internet – one has to question whether the book, which is tied so closely to the advent of the printing press, will retain its meaning, relevance and utility in the digital age.

The great growth of reading and writing we’re now experiencing is connected to the Internet’s abundance of information and instant-publishing opportunities, not books. In fact, books have been mostly absent from the Internet (for reading and reference) because they’re closed off in separate universes, not often made available for search, and not as freely distributed, copied and subscribed to as other digital media. In Google’s attempts to bring books inside the fold of the Web, they have faced innumerable challenges and legal battles from people who wish to strictly protect the copyright and profits related to books.

But it may not matter in the end, because the book – either as a unit of commerce or as a unit of attention – may not be the best way to satisfy the needs and desires of people who can instantly access information from mobile devices and be entertained by an unlimited amount of media. As Marcus Dohle said at the 2013 Frankfurt Book Fair, “We want [customers] to choose books as a future, and not Netflix – and that is a big task.” Industry consultant Mike Shatzkin has also said that the biggest challenge facing publishers isn’t the digitization of books or Amazon’s retail practices but the consumer deciding to pass the time by playing Angry Birds or scanning Facebook rather than reading a book.

This challenge, as Dohle says, is a big one. Some controversial articles have argued that the best storytelling today is found on TV, not books. Some have accused literary fiction of becoming irrelevant to contemporary life. Tim O’Reilly famously said the following on Charlie Rose in 2012:

I don’t really give a shit if literary novels go away. They’re an elitist pursuit. And they’re relatively recent. The most popular author in the 1850s in the US wasn’t Herman Melville writing Moby-Dick, you know, or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing The House of the Seven Gables. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writing long narrative poems that were meant to be read aloud. So the novel as we know it today is only a 200-year-old construct. And now we’re getting new forms of entertainment, new forms of popular culture.

Recent innovations in delivering stories have not typically come from book publishers, but from start-ups or online-based companies that can closely evaluate reader reaction and behavior. Amazon, following the lead of other media start-ups, has launched digital initiatives such as Kindle Singles (to deliver stories between 10,000 and 30,000 words), Kindle Serials (to sell story subscriptions) and Kindle Worlds (to deliver fan fiction). None of these genres or formats really fit into the existing paradigm of the book or the legal strictures surrounding it; therefore the traditional publishing business, concerned about profits and marketability, has rarely pursued such content. Now that such areas are flourishing in the digital environment, we begin to recognize the artificial construct of the book – that its length, shape and purpose is based on manufacturing, marketing and other commercial considerations.

Yet some do effectively argue that the book has evolved to encompass the perfect unit of attention and the perfect length to expound on an idea. Maybe this is true, or maybe this is just what we’re used to; after all, attention spans appear to be changing. Still, it’s difficult to envision that a book-length work of fiction – the novel – will become extinct any time soon. It seems likely to continue, but as a less popular form. Consider how the invention of the LP once led musicians to focus on the art and craft of the album: now the digitization of music has ushered in the age of the single. Perhaps fiction is headed in the same direction, something more befitting our short bursts of attention or time when we’re seeking 5-10 minutes of entertainment while standing in line at the grocery store or waiting at the doctor’s office.

The idea actually under threat is the book as information vehicle. Much of the publishing industry – especially the educational sector – is acutely aware that the typical book doesn’t necessarily do the best job of imparting information. Many nonfiction publishers have completely stopped talking about “books” and now focus on content strategy and media agnosticism, recognizing the need to deliver information in many different channels, formats and environments. Wiley’s CEO Steve Smith has said in a range of talks that his company’s job as an educational publisher is not to deliver information or content, but to develop services. By that he means: servicing universities, students and professionals with online courses, assessment, workflow tools, communities and, yes, digital books.

I also wonder about the feasibility, particularly in the nonfiction realm, of culture continuing to deify the author, according him great respect, authority and prestige for producing a book. For writers that subject themselves to the wisdom of the crowd, whether through an agile publishing model that collects reader feedback or a series of blog posts, they’re deeply aware that their own knowledge and perspective, without the knowledge and input of others, often falls short. Case in point: Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopædia Britannica. Wikipedia of course has its weaknesses (mainly in structure and style), but the resource is still in its infancy when compared to Britannica.

As far as the role and primacy of the author in storytelling, I can’t help but refer once again to the strength of current TV writing, where a room of writers debate and produce a story arc collectively. While there is usually a creator or visionary, someone who has come up with the premise (as in the case of Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad), most show creators are quick to give equal credit to the many writers they work with.

Bottom line, we forget that the idea of authorship – and the creation of copyright – came along with the printing press. Before the printing press, there really wasn’t any such thing as an “author.” There were scribes and historians, but authorship is a relatively new idea. With the digital age, we may see the role of the author start to disappear or diminish. Futurist David Houle has predicted this and said in an interview that the younger generations are not as concerned with control as they are influence. They are more interested in completing projects in a collaborative manner, rather than the ego- and identity-centered “I’ve got to go off by myself and create my work of art.” This latter attitude pretty much nails the primary mode and concern of novel writers today, who find themselves in dramatic opposition to the technology surrounding them. (See: Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers.)

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