Books as ideas that co-opt technology
We might readily presume that technology poses a threat to books and our idea of traditional reading. Movies, television, video games and the Web take us away from sitting comfortably with our nose in a book, breathing in literature. Our government takes this threat seriously enough to fund studies, as we fund studies of air quality and global warming.
Yet this presumption begs a few questions. What is a book exactly? What is literature? And is our idea of traditional reading worth special protection?
A book, before it takes physical form, is an idea—or rather, a collection of ideas that somehow form a coherent whole. Ideas drawn into a book create a unit of knowledge or experience, or a story, with a beginning and some type of end.
What we point to when we say book—that thing made of paper pages between covers—is but a currently popular technological form for books.
Our familiar hardcover book has evolved considerably since its debut some 1,500 years ago. And its form has always relied on technology and art. In the beginning the pages were artfully handwritten by scribes on animal skins, and only the rich could afford them. Eventually paper was invented and movable type, and then mass production that enabled an exploding readership. Growing readership in turn created a market for more books, more reading teachers, and yet more readers, all in a virtuous cycle.
Typographic and graphic design made books ever more pleasing to read. Compelling dust jackets and marketing helped books sell. Computerized typesetting, digital printing and computerized distribution have all enabled the surfeit of books we now enjoy. We are the lucky beneficiaries of these technological and artistic advances.
Today we love our physical books to the point of worship—for their content as well as their form. We grant prestigious awards to writers. Artists pay tribute by making sculptures of books in wood, bronze and stone.
But as wondrous as the current physical form of a book is, it is not the original or only form.
During the centuries of the famed Library of Alexandria, scrolls were the books of their day. Before that: engraved stone, painted walls and the original audiobooks—storytelling. All of these forms also depended on technology and art. Even storytelling combined the tools of language with the art of oratory and song. A Greek fellow named Homer was particularly good at this form of a book.
Since books are ideas before they are things, they seem to morph into whatever technology is available. Like life forms, they evolve to fill newly available habitats.
A hundred years ago, this morphing began to accelerate, most significantly into movies, then television, and, in the last quarter of the 20th century, into audiobooks. These new art forms may not be called books, but they contain the same kinds of ideas as books and can result in similar benefits. Then can teach and entertain and fill one with dread or inspiration. They, like traditional printed books, are art. And in some cases, the new art can eclipse our traditional printed form of a book.
Can you read the writing on the new wall?
That movies can sometimes be better art than the books that inspired them is a reality that comes through loudly in the hundreds of thoughtful comments I’ve received on boovies. Television has also hosted superb art inspired from books, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series and thousands of other moving productions. Audiobooks, too, can surpass their printed cousins, especially when richly accented dialog comes to life through the voice of a gifted narrator.
The acceleration of book alternatives continues today with graphic novels, with popular books being written—and read—on cell phones, and most significantly, with the latest hatch of electronic books sporting marvelous new screens that seem remarkably like paper, and boasting onboard dictionaries together with audio and annotation capabilities.
A growing number of folks today are preferring to read their morning news online where they can click through for more detail, watch a video, email the journalist—it’s easy to -see why this dynamic reading-and learning can be more compelling than shaking out the traditional newspaper over your bowl of corn flakes. Soon more readers will make a similar discovery about electronic books, which they can read with a dynamism hardly imagined just a few years ago.
“There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.”
Our image of someone sitting quietly with a book à la Emily Dickinson is truly beautiful. We know how transporting this kind of reading can be. But our present paper books are not our only frigates, and there are lands far from sight for us to explore.
If we are about to enter a Cambrian Explosion of new ways of creating and reading books (and I think we are), can we still cherish the physical books we grew up with?
I know how much I treasure my printed-books library and hope to lovingly expand it until the end of my days. After all, Levenger is a publisher of paper books, with an eye toward transforming these physical beings into objects of desire. Yet I’m also excited for books to become ever more liberated from their paper handcuffs.
Technological advance, rather than posing a threat, provides new habitats for books and literature to thrive in. I look forward to dwelling, at least some of the time, in these brave new worlds.
As part of this series on the Golden Age of Books, I’ll take us on a tour of some of the ways technology is helping books take us to ever more exciting lands away.
Coming up: Happy Eulogy for Hard-to-Find Books.
How about you? Are you partaking of books in other-than-book form? Is it an evolution for the better…or not? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).