The Future of the Printed Book (2014), by Sean Gabb


The Future of the Printed Book
By Sean Gabb

Early in 2003, I took my camera for servicing to a shop in Dover. While collecting it, I suggested to the old man who ran the shop that my camera would soon be obsolete, and that the future would be digital.

“Oh, film won’t ever be replaced,” he said confidently. He went into a learned explanation of how 35mm film had an assured future, and that digital would take at best a small bite from the bottom end of the market. I was less sure, but had no answer to what he said. I got my answer later in the year. I read in a newspaper report that Fuji was ending all film manufacture in the European Union, and that falling demand was its reason. By then, I had my first digital camera. Another few years, and the camera that I had paid £50 to service was fetching pennies on E-Bay. Today, 35mm film can still be bought, but high street developing shops have been replaced by printing machines with media card inputs. If people are taking more photographs than ever before, an entire technology has gone the way of the steam locomotive and the typewriter.

We live in an age of revolution. Political structures are as yet little affected. But all about them is in flux. It is a revolution driven by technological change. One after another, technologies that evolved in the twentieth century, and that seemed, by about 1980, to have reached their fullest development, have been swept away. Vinyl and tape were killed by the CD. This was in turn killed by MP3, and we cannot be sure how long this format will maintain its dominance. Videotape is dead. Fixed line telephony is dying. So too copper wire. Radio and television are trembling on the edge of democratisation. Hollywood is being eaten alive by piracy. E-mails have replaced letters. Who now buys filing cabinets? In short, the Internet and the digital technologies it has enabled are remaking the world in a form we can as yet only dimly perceive.

What, then, about the printed book? Will this survive? Why should it survive? No doubt there are bibliophiles as committed to paper as that old man in the camera shop was to film. “The printed book won’t ever be replaced,” I can hear them say. But why should the printed book be different? No doubt, we shall continue reading – just as we continue taking photographs and listening to music. But is there any reason why the printed book should survive? Let us review the main arguments in favour of print.

First, the printed book is different. To see why, compare it with sound recording. This emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, and its history has been one of discontinuous leaps. Edison’s phonograph cylinders were an invention of genius. But they were defective, so far as they took up storage space and were hard to reproduce. They were replaced by the gramophone record. This was transformed by the development of electrical recording, and then reinvented as vinyl, and further transformed by stereophonic recording. By the time CDs came on the market, in the early 1980s, there had not been a single generation of stability for recorded music. If we look at any twenty year period between 1900 and 1980, the best recording quality at the beginning was thought unacceptable at the end; and the reproduction technology was generally obsolete. We are lucky to be able to hear Caruso and Tetrazzini sing so long after they died. There is much value in being able to know what orchestral playing was like when musicians who had known Brahms and Wagner were still working. On the whole, however, we judge sound recording by its fidelity to the original. Newer is better; and few of us regretted the chance, in the late 1980s, to dump our collections of scratched and dust-embedded vinyl into the nearest charity shop.

The printed book is different. It is part of our civilisation. In my civilisation, indeed, there have been only two discontinuous leaps since the birth of Christ. In the first century, a book was a papyrus roll. Sheets of papyrus, about eighteen inches by twelve, were written on one side and glued together into a strip of not more than twenty feet. The strip was then wound about a wooden spine, and a second spine was stuck at the outside end. The result was as cheap at the technology allowed, but was defective in itself. Papyrus can last for thousands of years in Egypt, but falls apart after about a hundred years in any damper climate. Also, the rolls were difficult to search through, and they took up storage space.

The book as we know it was not invented by the Christians, but they seem to have made it fashionable – perhaps because they were less culturally committed than the pagans to an inferior technology. Though expensive, parchment lasts longer than papyrus, and books stitched between covers are easier to read and to store. Whatever the case, the book as we know it had triumphed by about the fifth century, and virtually the whole surviving body of ancient literature can be traced back to the recopying choices made by librarians and readers at the end of antiquity.

During the next thousand years, the main change to the book was the replacement of parchment by paper. Then, from about the end of the fifteenth century, hand copying gave way to printing. In terms of intellectual history, this was a greater change than the switch from papyrus rolls. The unlimited reproduction and cheapening of books enabled the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and the emergence of a world of mass-literacy and scientific rationalism.

For us, the printed book is a sacred object. A CD is merely something that must be ripped to MP3 so it can be played on a mobile telephone. An LP is an object of curiosity to the young. But anyone who thinks of learning will imagine books. A library is a place of silence and concentration. Readers hunched over their books will frequently be in communion with the finest minds of the ages. The Nazis were evil because they killed people. Before they did that, they burned books. It is the same with the Inquisition and with every other coercive institution. The printed book is special. Anyone who thinks it can become obsolete is surely drunk on a technology that did not exist when most of us were born.

Second, E-books are inferior. You need electricity to read them. What can you do when the battery runs out? What if our advanced civilisation collapses? Printed books work perfectly well with a little daylight or a candle. E-books are inflexible. They cannot be skimmed. If they are made up of text rather than photographed pages, they can be searched, but only if a word or phrase is already known. Often a printed book can be searched by recollection of where in it something was previously seen. A further problem is that printed books go through an elaborate process of proofing. They are faithful to the original text. E-books books, unless they are released by a mainstream publisher, are often riddled with typing errors. Every Kindle edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, for example, is worthless for scholarly use. Why give up something that works for something that does not?

Third, nobody can say how long an e-book will last. We have a text of Virgil written while there was still a Senate in Rome, and a text of the Gospels commissioned by Constantine the Great. We have books printed by Caxton in the fifteenth century, and first editions of Shakespeare. Trying to read a book stored on floppy disk takes a prior search on E-Bay for obsolete equipment, and may be a worthless attempt, bearing in mind how quickly magnetic impressions fade. Even commercial CDs can lose data within a few years. Hard disks are unreliable. Memory sticks are of unknown stability Anyone who trusts current storage technologies to keep a text readable more than a dozen years is engaging in a continuous act of faith.

These are all valid points. Indeed, I have no answer to the second and third, other than to speak piously about improvements in technology that I cannot clearly imagine. But, rather than try for an answer, I can think of two offsetting arguments.

First, there is the great convenience of e-books. During the past few years, Google and Microsoft, and the Gutenberg Project and the Liberty Fund, among others, have been photographing and digitising millions of books published before ninety years ago. They have made these freely available. Because of this, anyone can possess books that used to be available only to scholars with access to a few major research libraries. This may bring about as great a democratisation of learning as the invention of printing.

There are, moreover, books that it is not convenient to print. Every law book is a work in progress. It is enormously expensive, and a single Act of Parliament or judgment of the Supreme Court can make it obsolete in a day. It is much the same with scientific texts and catalogues. Then there is paperback fiction. Few people collect this. It is bought and consumed and discarded. It is perfect for the Kindle.

Second, and this is really a further point arising from the first, e-books are ideal to store. In England and in many other countries, property is expensive. Perhaps everyone can find room for one or two book cases. But private libraries are a luxury. When a room can be found to house books, it will probably not hold more than a thousand volumes. A one terabyte hard disk will hold ten thousand pdf files of photographed pages. A standard hard disk of 2020 may hold the entire British Library.

While the future is unpredictable, we seem to be moving to a world in which printed books will survive in ways that gramophone records and videocassettes cannot. Books will be increasingly digital. E-book readers will become increasingly sophisticated and flexible. The technical problems will be solved. Main publication will be digital. The price of second hand paperbacks will continue heading toward zero. Printed books, though, will remain as luxury objects. Like expensive pens, they will be given as Christmas and birthday presents. Religious and classical texts will continue to be printed and owned and read.

More than I cannot say. 

Sean Gabb’s novel, The Break, comes out in e-book on the 2nd June 2014. You can read the first 20 per cent for free. If you like what you read, please consider pre-ordering it, and passing on the details to your friends.

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26 responses to “The Future of the Printed Book (2014), by Sean Gabb

  1. James Deckard

    ‘While collecting it, I suggested to the old man who ran the shop ‘ Charmed, I’m sure ;)

  2. Ideally, data stored electronically should have non-electronic backup copies. Cosmic rays or an electronic pulse attack by a hostile power could wipe out everything stored on every device across an entire continent, unless perhaps the hard drive is in a lead-lined cellar.

    I have a copy of Decline and Fall from Gutenberg, and I don’t see any major errors in it. PDF copies of books from Internet Archive are identical to the printed originals, though that format is more suited to a tablet than an e reader.

  3. For me, paper as a material is reduced to scratch paper; scribbled notes. I don’t write anything proper on it, I don’t read anything on it (beyond my own aforementioned notes), I don’t even draw on it (Photoshop). I think paper itself is on the way out. Although fine art will remain on real world materials, it’s now routine for low art (internet commissions of Wonder Woman, etc) to be delivered digitally. Paper itself is becoming obsolete.

    I cannot see the book surviving at all, even as a luxury gift.

  4. Oh, I think it will survive, though ultimately as a niche product. Printing only destroyed hand copying as a commercial enterprise. Hand copying – for convenience or as a luxury product – continues even now. I believe that Richard Strauss, when he was hard up after the War, kept going by copying his manuscripts for collectors. Richard Blake is sometimes paid for writing out chapters from his books – not that they were composed on paper. In the same way, I think printed books will continue to be created and sold.

  5. Chris Morriss

    I do see books surviving, at least until some form of media that is a true replacement comes along. E-books as they stand at the moment are not adequate replacements. Reading one is akin to reading a scroll, in that it is a linear process. You simply can’t stick a bit of temporary bit of paper in one to mark as a guide to where something of interest was to be found. They are also really only of use for non-illustrated material. You would also need around 6 megapixel pages to have the same quality as on paper pages.

    I’m sure that current generation Kindles and the like are ideal for readers of ‘Chick Lit’ and other low-grade works, and even for the less than stellar outpourings from Dr Gabb’s various alter egos. For anyone who loves proper literature, they’re still a long way off.

  6. I think the major advantage of the end of books will be that it will no longer be possible for people to underline passages and write “I agree!” in the margins of library books.

    • Oh dear Ian.

      Would you also be happy that no-one could ever again write comments like “Of this I have a marvellous proof, which this margin is too small to contain?”

      • Yes, especially considering we now know he couldn’t possibly have had the said proof.

  7. The printed book will survive underground in the Armoured Libraries that a few individuals will now be making, against the Coming Endarkenment.

    For now, most of these will be vulnerable to fire, a preferred weapon of GramscoFabiaNazis and a solution to their problem with the wide-availability of all sorts of “information”. But not all, in the end, will burn, and something will be saved for use inside the interregnum and also afterwards. In the interregnum there will be no electricity anywhere much: the producers of it locally will be caught and executed in barbaous ways which I will let Mr Blake and his friend Sean Gabb describe.

    The duration of this period, although of course very very long, cannot be predicted at this time.

  8. I have heard it said that the wizards of cyberspace (Amazon, for instance) can and do ‘edit’ texts on people’s Kindles. One day the e-book says one thing, the next time you read it, it can say something quite different. Scary. At least you don’t get that with paper copies!

  9. It would be interesting to know how much data there is out that is recorded only in electronic form. It’s a precarious existence.

  10. All things are in precarious existence. Even our wood pulp paper has a short life. Hemp would be better but of course the political scum don’t like that idea.

  11. Julie near Chicago

    There is the simple fact that reading from the screen is harder on the eyes than reading ink-on-paper. Partly because of too-high (or too-low) contrast, and partly because of flicker rates.

    It is also true that when doing research, one can easily find one’s table or desk submerged under volumes opened to this page or that. And each of the volumes sprouting bookmarks like antennae sending and receiving signals: See here! Read this! Don’t forget me!

    It’s very helpful, for instance, to have several versions of a text or discussions of an idea or an event open side-by-side, for easy comparison. Difficult to do with more than about three sources on a single computer screen, and if your eyesight is elderly, you may have to make do with one at a time.

    In this way of working, it is much easier to find your way again when, as is inevitable, you get sidetracked. (Well, you wouldn’t be doing all this in the first place if you weren’t a curious cat, would you?)

    It’s certainly true that the computer has its own benefits, and when mine is not available I do get withdrawals.

    But books are still the Gold Standard. :>)

    (Or would be, if there were still copy-editors who were acquainted with grammar and spelling. Speaking of which, I do trust no one possessing the intellect to be expected of those who frequent the present area of cyberspace is relying on some word-processor’s so-called spell-checker. Unfortunately these tend to be orthographically challenged, and to be a few words short of a full dictionary besides.)

    PS. Speaking of being appalled: A day or two ago I was looking up some word in the online “Oxford Dictionaries.” I forget what the word was, but the form of the definition given was as in this (rather pitiful!) example:

    Friendship ring. A ring someone gives to their friend, as an expression of friendship.

  12. Julie: multiple monitors.

    I’m probably alone here in having no reverence for books. I can feel a nostalgia going through old books when they revive memories of childhood or earlier life, as with any personal items, but the book itself I’ve always found to be an irritating an unergonomic device.

    It suffers from a severe problem that tablet computers do; eyes are high up, hands are low down, so the best position for reading something is not the best for holding it. Add to that that most books unless expensively bound have to be permanently held open to prevent them closing themselves, and they become deeply annoying. They have no internal light source, the text size cannot be changed if you wish to lean back and read from a relaxed position.

    Can’t see any advantage to them at all.

  13. Paul Marks

    Sean Gabb is correct – a well printed (and well bound) book is a different.

    This was brought home to me by a copy of Harold Prichard’s book on Kant that I bought via Amazon.

    Every word was there (just as it would be on a computer screen). but it is a dreadful object – produced by people with no love for books (chapters starting half way down pages and so on)

    Books will last – IF the people who produce books actually produce a decent product (if they have love for what they produce).

  14. Paul Marks

    Things were actually worse a few years ago,

    “Perfect binding” (ironic name for just sticking the pages straight to the spine – so they fell out very quickly) and acid paper.

    The British book trade made itself the laughing stock of the world.

    Things are now a bit better than that..

  15. Moore’s Law: technology doubles in 18 months. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moore's_law for background.

  16. Altho’ I support tech strongly–the truth is that a lot of it is lies and crap.

    Digital TV–never again will your picture break up because of the weather!!! HA!!!!!. The bastard thing breaks up under random weather conditions never mind bad ones.

    DVDs????–never had a bad video–never had to wipe ordinary skin oil off a video so it would play–never had a vid that played for a few minutes and then dissolved the picture into in millions of chunks.

    I don’t have a kindle and don’t want one and, yes, I believe Amazon can reach in and remove/edit what you have “bought” from them. Do have a few kindle on my PC. Only cos they books were only available in kindle.

  17. I suspect that ebooks in their present form will be transitory phase and that information will increasing be delivered through apparatus such Google Glass and eventually directly into the brain through some cybernetic construct.

  18. Whoa. I know ju-jitsu.

  19. Julie near Chicago

    Ian, I agree that books are not always comfortable to use. But then neither are computers. Especially if you’re trying to replace my blanket of open books with enough monitors to do the same sort of thing. And heavens, the electric bill!

    Besides, the propinquity of their pages is the most important part of what makes side-by-side books so useful. You hardly have to move your eyes to take them in, which allows maximum concentration. And you just can’t get the same effect from multiple monitors, no matter how many you have.

    In the end, it’s a matter of taste. But I’ll tell you what, Ian. Preferring gefilte fish to lox is just plain morally wrong, and saying “it’s a matter of taste” doesn’t change that. :>)

    But for number-crunching and a lot of writing, computers can’t be beat. And if you love programming (in a real language, like Assembler or Fortran), they’re the greatest puzzle provider ever invented.

  20. Sean, you left out the best feature of an e-book: it can be searched, and a particular passage found in seconds. Try that with a printed book!

    Julie near Chicago: you complain of screen flicker. Are you still using a CRT screen? Flat LED screens don’t flicker.

  21. Neither do CRTs, unless it’s some interlaced 60Hz horror from the 1990s. Plus, you get the better colour rendering. I’m using one now.

    Just as bibliophiles mourn the demise of the book, I mourn the demise of the CRT. Give me a freshly minted Trinitron over these ghastly LCD horrors any day of the week. They’re okay for amateurs I suppose.

    • I had no problems with my 14″ CRT. However, I do like the 28″ LCD monitor my brother-in-law gave me for Christmas a few years back. Then again, I mostly use computers for writing.