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Future of the Book: Fractured and Unfixed or Convenient and Accessible?

Christine Rosen in her New Atlantis article People of the Screen refering to former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly’s  2006 article in the New York Times Magazine:

"This ode to gigajoy included the obligatory prediction that paper books would be replaced with handheld devices. “Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums,” Kelly writes, the universal digital library that Google is bringing into the world “will encourage the creation of virtual ‛bookshelves’—a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information.” Kelly anticipates the day when authors will “write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages.” But what would a mash-up of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the latest best-selling mystery look like? There are some extraordinary lines in Eliot’s novel. Writing of Lydgate and Rosamond, for example, Eliot says, “He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains.” But devoid of the complicated context of the rest of the novel, how can we understand why this observation is poignant, apt, and true?

Kelly’s hope for the book is to turn it into a kind of digital Frankenstein monster, a contextless “text” that is no more than the sum of its scattered and remixed parts: “What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library,” he writes. And he is confident that “in the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail.” Perhaps it will, but Kelly might want to include in his own future e-book another snippet from Eliot’s masterpiece, one which might serve as a warning for us all: “We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement.”

Rosen ends her article with this:

"Such is the end of the tragedy we are now witness to: Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information. All in the name of progress."


I’m a little more sanguine. If the ebook replicates the paperback reading experience closely enough; if the new Kindle looks and feels as cool, and works as well as the iPod. If it holds 1000 books. If I can write notes in the margins, refer to other texts, and underline and more easily gather together, store and print-out significant passages…I say bring it on…Given that so many books are primarily about  content: If I can access it more easily; if the act of reading is as convenient and pleasurable as it is with the paper book, then by all means save the trees. Just publish hardcovers for those who want the ‘book’ experience, or who want to collect. Fewer printed volumes would be a good thing. It might also mean that existing editions (i.e. my collection) would assume prices more reflective of  their value.

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One Response to “Future of the Book: Fractured and Unfixed or Convenient and Accessible?”

  1. barb minett Says:

    If the book disappears so will all of those bookstores which are at the heart of so many communities! As owner of an independent bookstore for 35 years I know that I would miss all of the terrific conversation that people have in the act of browsing and buying books in our store. It’s certainly not the same as blogging and emailing.

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