For the past couple years there’s been this Grim Reaper-kind of specter lurking around the paper-and-ink world of publishing, moaning to us that that pages will soon be no more and images will replace them.
We’ve been commanded to start weeping and preparing for the brave new world where books of the three-dimensional kind will cease to exist. I duly noted the prophecy, decided it would not happen in my lifetime and went back to writing for the world of paper.
I still feel that way. Even after reading op-eds like this one, which appeared today in the NY Times. I know you’re busy – you don’t need to read the whole thing (though I suggest you do). The gist of the piece is this: Digital this is replacing paper that. It’s happening. Readers – and there are fewer of those than there were 20 years ago – will begin to want all their reading material on their Kindles and Sony readers, and other nameless reading devices being designed even as I write this (and I am keenly aware that I am writing, at this moment, on a paperless, digital medium).
And when this happens, so says the Reaper, the floodgates will open and writers of all kinds – those with talent and those with none – will be able to get their good words and sorry words into digital space because we already know there is no boundary to that. A good “book” will cost next to nothing and so will a bad one. There will be a proliferation of downloadable words with no end in sight. Writers of the good stuff will have to find auxiliary means for making a living at writing, like, as this author of this op-ed imagined, charging for appearances to read their good stuff aloud. Because everything that is digital starts out rare and expensive and soon becomes common and cheap. Remember how much calculators cost back in the ’70s?
Well, I concede it may be true. I even concede it may happen in my lifetime. I know how fast things can change. Twenty years ago the word e-mail meant nothing to me.
But I predict no death of books. And that is because books have dual lives: they are objects of information/entertainment – functional, if you will – but they are also objects of art and that makes them cultural as well. Especially the novel. There is something artistic about having a book in your hands, keeping it after you’ve read it, and placing it onto a shelf in your living room like it’s part of the furniture. Books are displayed, spine visible, like photographs, paintings, and Lladro figurines. No one’s going to place their Kindle on the coffee table next to a Tuscan bowl of decorative spheres. Novels transcend information. They are things we keep.
The volume of books produced may decrease, and we writers may have to start making tents to supplement a meager income, but our books will not disappear until art disappears.
And there is no cloaked Doomsday party-pooper prognosticating the death of that.