How the Internet Will Take Apart the Book
A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century. I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day. Still, back then, for my novel’s characters -- mostly authors and book editors like me -- I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.” It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”-- for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.
When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it -- still in prototype form -- it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object... a flickering jewel of light and color.” And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”
An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.” A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much. The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.
Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing. It was evident even then that the coming machines of our electronic lives, no matter the tasks they might be dedicated to, including reading The Book, would have little choice but to “generalize’ into all-purpose entities. The urge for email, a video camera, ads, apps, you name it, has indeed proved overwhelming.
Personally, like Lewis Lapham in his latest essay “Word Order,” I see everything right about reading a book in any format, including on a machine. (Admittedly, I don’t do it yet, but I read just about everything else except a single daily newspaper that way.) The problem is that a book read on a machine heading for riot mode with the ad encroaching is, in the long run, likely to prove to be something new in our world.
Historically, the book, almost alone, has resisted that great colonizing form of our age, the ad (a subject I’ve written about elsewhere). That, in turn, meant you could be assured of one thing when you opened its covers: that you were alone in the book’s world and time. No longer. Sooner or later, the one thing the coming successor generations of e-book are guaranteed to do is smash the traditional reading experience, that sense -- when you step inside those covers -- of having plunged into another universe. You can’t really remain in another universe long with your email pinging in the background. So the book, enveloped in our busy world and the barrage of images, information, and so much else that comes our way incessantly, is bound to morph into something different, as is the experience of reading it.