Guardian column: The future of books?

My Media Guardian column this week distills many of the posts here about the future of books. (Nonregistration version here.) Excerpt:

We need to kill the book to save books. Now relax. I’m not suggesting burning books, nor replacing them with electronic gizmos in some paperless future of fable and fantasy. Instead, I’m merely arguing that the book is an outdated means of communicating information. And thanks to the searchable, connected internet, books could be so much more.

Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word.

When I wrote this on my blog, defenders of the printed faith came after me with pitchforks and cries of, “Philistine!”

: LATER: Motoko Rich in The NY Times today writes about the digital revolution coming to publishing, whether publishing wants it or not:

Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry…

That seems to assume that there’s a chance publishing can avoid the digital revolution. That horse is over the horizon already.

As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” thinks a digital library of all books would be a “godsend” during research, allowing her to “sniff out all the paragraphs” on a given topic. But, she said: “That’s not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there’s no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book — the magic of the paper and thread and glue.”

How silly — and ultimately restrictive and damaging — to have an orthodoxy defining “reading.” But that’s where we are.

And let’s deal with that smell meme now: There is nothing in the smell of books that adds to the learning and enjoyment. We associate that smell with reading the way we associate the smell of vinyl with a new car. I’ll be our children have the same association of wonder and enrichment with the sight of a white screen or the smell of a laptop overheating.

On Kevin Kelly’s ode to the connected book in the Times Magazine:

“Does that mean ‘Anna Karenina’ goes hand in hand with my niece’s blog of her trip to Las Vegas?” asked Jane Hamilton, author of “The Book of Ruth” and a forthcoming novel, “When Madeline Was Young.” “It sounds absolutely deadly.” Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. “When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I’m in the presence of the divine,” Ms. Hamilton said. “I don’t want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don’t want to go to her Web site.”

How fatuous. Listen, Willa Cather is on the shelves now next to Danielle Steel. But don’t worry: Willa won’t get any on her.

I pick on the lead-type Luddite moments in the story, but it also does a very good job pointing to the enthusiasts and success stories, including Yochi Benkler’s new book on networks (which, irony, o irony, i just ordered from Amazon). And this:

For unknown authors struggling to capture the attention of busy readers, however, the Web offers an unprecedented way to catapult out of obscurity. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who started a political blog, “Unclaimed Territory,” just eight months ago, was recruited by a foundation financed by Working Assets, a credit card issuer and telecommunications company, to write a book this spring. Mr. Greenwald promoted the result, called “How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok,” on his own blog and his publisher e-mailed digital galleys to seven other influential bloggers, who helped to send it to the No. 1 spot on before it was even published. This Sunday it will hit No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list. “I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology,” Mr. Greenwald said. “That’s one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and new authors.”

Say amen.

Of course, what this all comes down to is money. I do not blame authors for wanting to get paid — any more than I blame journalists, musicians, or TV producers. But trying to make money by stopping people from what they want to do, preventing them from enjoying your work the way they want to enjoy it, won’t work.

Mr. Benkler, the Yale professor and author, argues that people will continue to pay for books if the price is low enough. “Even in music, price can compete with free,” Mr. Benkler said. “The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay. Its not clear to me why, if people are willing to pay 99 cents for a song they won’t be willing to pay $3 for a book.”

And some needed context:

In the context of history, the changes that today’s technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.

: LATER: Here are comments on the column on Comment is Free.