Guardian column: The book is dead. Long live the book.

My Media Guardian column this week distills some of the posts here about the future of the book…

Jeff Jarvis
Monday June 5, 2006
The Guardian

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 Instead, I’m merely arguing that the book is an outdated means of communicating information.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 Academics perish if they do not publish.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!” After journalist Kevin Kelly extolled the digital future of books in a recent edition of New York Times Magazine, John Updike took to the stage at the BookExpo conference to rant and rail against him. “Pretty grizzly stuff,” Updike growled, “throwing us back to the level of pre-literate societies.” Or holding us back in a pre-digital society.

Today, any medium that defines itself by its medium is in trouble: newspapers, broadcasting and books must be valued for their substance over their shape. Is a book bound paper? Or is it the ideas and information within? If there are better ways to share knowledge, why should it suffer the limitations of the page?

Books are frozen in time, yet in digital form, they can live in never-ending editions. Short of footnotes and bibliographies, books have little connection to related sources and debates; online, the simple link solves that. You cannot link straight to an idea in a book, nor search for it – though Google could fix that, if only publishers would let them. Hear Ben Vershbow of the Institute for the Future of the Book in the current Library Journal: “Parts of books will reference parts of other books. Books will be woven together out of components in remote databases and servers.” And Kevin Kelly: “In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.”

There are also too few books. Trade publisher Bowker reports that in the UK, more new book titles were published last year than in the US – 206,000 v 172,000 – and that number is sinking in the US. But last week, MediaGuardian also reported that the continuing consolidation of British booksellers will yield only more dependence on blockbusters and thus fewer titles. In print, books rely on scarce shelf space, gatekeeping agents and editors, and expensive production. But online, writers could reach the mass of niches instead of just the mass. Speaking of mass, let me complain that too many books are too damned long just so they can be long enough to be books. And finally, unless you are Plato or Shakespeare, your book will disappear when there is no space left for it. Print is where words go to die.

I’m not proposing that every book would be enhanced by adding functionality; fiction, especially, is best delivered one-way and on portable paper. There are other problems to consider: copyright law is built for an old world. How can writing be supported in a post-scarcity information economy, where there is no shortage of words? What social and technical barriers will there be in getting authors and readers access to tools and connectivity? Above all, there are cultural issues. We have to get over the idea that lecture media is always superior to dialogue. We have to move past our one-way culture. While we worship the book with its present limitations, we cannot reinvent it. The book is dead. Long live books.