Building Worlds Out of Books


We’ve been writing about the future of the book without having given much thought to the question of what a book is in the first place. Is it a physical, papery artifact, a thing? An autonomous textual unit of attention made up of meaningful bite-sized subunits? A word whose persistence in language is merely a matter of convention, a residue of more bookish times?

I’d like to propose that a book is a window onto a world. If this is true, we have good reason to believe that books will survive in a form that will remain recognizable to us.

Books project worlds by objectifying thought. They freeze in place a story, a longish idea or a description of life. Books are one means of taking a world, real or invented, and compressing it, encoding it and presenting it. Books shrink space and crush time. So long as we enjoy shrinking space and crushing time, we’ll crave book-like things.

Then again, in the same breath that they create worlds, books also destroy themselves. When I read a science fiction novel (and not only science fiction), I read for worlds. I define the word world as the sum total of relations – among things, characters, settings, laws, etc. – within a bounded imaginative space. If the book does its job, its bookishness will dissolve into the reader’s concern for characters and situations and plots. Even the most intensely avant-garde poetry (think Kenneth Goldsmith’s American trilogy) or the boldest experiments in book design (think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes) construct worlds. Even the most book-conscious books are finally self-effacing.

Which might lead us to doubt that books need to survive. If I can watch a skillfully made rendition of Frank Herbert’s Dune, of what special use is the novel? It’s true, literary style is only one sort of window onto interesting worlds. But it’s a window with strengths and weaknesses, zones of clarity and opacity. Despite a century of efforts to do so, no novel will ever offer the visceral experience of a play or film or television show or video game. Contrariwise, non-literary modes of world-building still stink at dramatizing thought or deploying metaphor. Within the domain of prose fiction, moreover, short stories can only hint at the fullness of an imagined or real world, a job the novel does with ease.

There are also economic reasons why books will likely survive. In an age of vertically integrated multinational media conglomerates, books remain useful as vehicles for the creation of worlds on the cheap, worlds that subsequently spawn other higher-margin worldish media products. A company like DC Comics sustains its comics division almost purely as a means of research and development for its profitable films. Film producers often outsource creativity to popular novels or book series. The book (whether of poetry, drama or prose) fits snugly in curricula and on syllabi at every level of education. Finally, the novel is still at the peak of the pyramid of narrative and cultural prestige. No other form comes close to capturing the imagination of a world-hungry public. These are forces that will, fortunately, be hard to dislodge.

The future of the concept of the book is therefore the future of the book’s capacity to facilitate the reader’s access to worlds. As long as humans are hungry for fully evoked worlds that include figuration or densely packed information or renditions of characters (or people) whose inner lives are richly accessible, something very much like the book will survive.

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