The Death Of Books: Deja Vu All Over Again

What could this ancient ad possibly have to do with publishing in 2010? Oh, it's a reach, but...

I’ve been hearing the death knell ringing for the book again a lot lately. Not any particular book. All of them. The book as an object, as something you can carry out of a store or, as Hemingway demonstrated, use to whack someone who gave you a bad review.

The death knell has been ringing for years, but periodically the monk in the bell tower works overtime. The latest uptick has been a sidebar to last weekend’s release of the Apple iPad, which encroaches into Amazon Kindle territory by featuring a built-in e-book reader and access to Apple’s new digital bookstore.

If Apple’s in, that’s gotta be the final stake in Johannes Gutenberg’s heart, right?

Before proceeding, full disclosure:

(1) I don’t have an irrational fear of, or hatred for, e-books and their requisite hardware.

In fact, I like the whole idea. E-delivery makes a lot of sense in many scenarios, especially when instant or rapid obsolescence is a factor, as with newspapers and magazines.

I like the idea of being able to market to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, at any time, independent of shelf stock and the geo-patchwork of where I have or haven’t sold foreign rights.

Plus you don’t have to look any farther than J.A. Konrath’s blog to see the enormous potential in making one’s backlist available as e-books.

(2) I have an emotional investment in this issue.

As someone who not only loves books, but has his byline on and in quite a few, I long to see the form continue. Just as forecasters who hang ten on technology’s cutting edge have an emotional investment of their own in shucking the old and seeing their predictions for the new come true.

(3) I have no clue how this is all going to shake out.

Books, physical books, could die. I’m not saying they won’t. Yet I can’t help recall that I’ve seen this play before, and that it didn’t remotely end as predicted:

With music synthesizers in the 1980s.

No, really!

I’ll make this as succinct as possible for the non-geek.

A Relevant Detour Into Music Tech History

In 1983, music technology landed a broadjump into the future with two events:

(1) Yamaha’s release of the first affordable digital synthesizer, the DX7. If you’ve heard any pop music at all from the ‘80s, trust me, you’ve heard this synthesizer.

(2) Industry-wide adoption of MIDI, a communications protocol that allowed digital components to talk to each other.

Prior to digital, synthesists were confined to analog instruments, whose sounds came from regulating electrical voltage. Maybe you’ve heard of Moog synthesizers? Analog.

The DX7 and all that it represented were almost universally regarded as THE future, and digital undeniably had lots of advantages over analog. It sounded brighter and shinier, it stayed in tune, it made sounds analog couldn’t, sounds could be saved as data and thus bought and sold and traded, instruments could be manufactured more affordably, and on and on. Plus MIDI let you do things like play a chord on one synth and hear it erupt out of five more at once.

“Analog” soon became synonymous with “unwanted” and “dinosaur.” Instruments that might’ve cost as much as a car languished at garage sale prices. Analog was pretty much given up for dead.

However: If you were keen on sculpting your own sounds, early digital synths weren’t particularly user friendly. All those retro knobs, sliders, and switches had disappeared beneath the hood, their functions vanishing into menus. The DX7’s programming interface had just one moving part: a data slider. It was for editing numerical parameters accessed by membrane switches, like on a microwave oven. Just tons of intuitive fun.

Digital synths got better, of course, but players still eventually smacked palms to foreheads with a hearty cry: “What were we thinking? We miss all those retro knobs, sliders, and switches!”

So along came the virtual analog synth: digital guts, analog-style controls.

And before long, the market for genuine analog gear came back. Even for modular synths, old-school behemoths that look like vintage telephone switchboards.

Another death knell was heard after computers grew powerful enough to run sophisticated sound engines, and software synths began to flourish: Well, that’s it, that’s the death of hardware.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, it all co-exists. Analog, digital, hybrids, modular, hardware, software — it all lives side-by-side. The ecosystem of choice and preference has never been more diverse.

And this is a relatively small, highly specialized market, compared to publishing.

So is it really that difficult to imagine a similar future for books? One that doesn’t come down to either-or, but both-and? Apparently for many prognosticators it is.

Apples And Oranges, Or Fruit Salad

I’m fully aware that, on the surface, this is a comparison of two things that have nothing to do with each other. One is a tool used in service of creating an artistic vision; the other, a means of delivery for a vision that’s already been completed.

But they have a couple of qualities in common that go deeper:

(1) User experience. That digital instruments provided a new way of synthesizing sound did not, in the end, supersede the old way of doing it, any more than synths as a whole superseded violins, marimbas, and grand pianos. Rather, once the novelty wore off, the shortcomings became apparent.

The book, as has been widely pointed out, is so good at doing what it’s designed to that it hasn’t needed an upgrade in centuries. It doesn’t take batteries, doesn’t crash, still works fine if it cracks, is easier to notate and highlight, you’re not out $399 if you drop it in the bath, and it’ll forgive you the indulgence of throwing a crappy one across the room.

Searchability, space efficiency, and ease of delivery, though — e-books win there, no question.

Still, a simulation of printed content, complete with flipping pages, is not a replacement for the real, tangible thing. Simulations hardly ever are.

(2) Cachet. On the surface, it makes no logical sense for a musician to pay $3000 for a new Minimoog when he could get a software emulation of it for $199. Few of his listeners would ever know the difference, or care if they did.

But the musician knows and cares, and it matters because he’s not just looking for a tool, but a relationship with something that appeals to his sense of distinction.

Likewise, readers have relationships with books. All of them? No. Some? Absolutely. A copy may be one of 200, or 20,000, or 2 million, but it’s still a unique individual. It occupies space and has a history. It’s yours. There isn’t another one exactly like it. This crease, that coffee stain, the lingering smell of some room.

To a reader, a physical book has worth apart from its monetary cost. It’s a vault that contains some mix of knowledge, wisdom, ideas, expression, and artistry, and agree with it or not, like it or not, the fact that it made it through the long and sometimes torturous route to ink and paper means something.

That our fingers and eyes spent hours mingling with its molecules means something.

That its spine can face us from a shelf and remind us of those hours, or entice us back for a return visit, means something.

And I’ve yet to see anybody who’s predicting the extinction of the physical book tackle why these associations will cease to be a factor with readers, much less argue that readers can transfer them over to an item we can make disappear in a split-second with a Delete key.

Yet, for all that, I welcome it.

I’m excited by the possibilities of the e-book, on its own terms. I like it for the things it can do and the places it can go that physical books can’t, at least not as easily. I embrace it for what it is and in spite of what it isn’t … and right now, top of the ISN’T list is this: the successor to analog books, the rumors of whose death, I suspect, have been greatly exaggerated.

5 comments to The Death Of Books: Deja Vu All Over Again

  • Yeah, but try to find an analog version of the Neo-Cro-Magnon-Piltdown-Neanderthal 3-hole didgeridoo dinosaurhorn with a French cut stone reed Do-Dah model #6. See? Technohysteria has replaced it with the digital kazoo. The 3-hole is extinct and along with it, I fear, all those loose-lipped stone reed players we all loved so very much. I say kill the Kindle kwik, Applesauce the iPad. Help, help, the sky is…

    Grand analog-y, Brian. There will be losses and gains here, and in the end probably a synthesis if not a synthesizer.

    — Sully

  • Brian Hodge

    And that’s all I’m asking for, really. I think.

    And I’m guessing that particular instrument is something your golden ears picked out of the soundtrack to Avatar? As a didgeridoo player meself, I fear that you’ve just given me a new holy grail.

  • Wolf Lahti

    The death of the novel has been periodically predicted since the 1800s. Death of the print book has been chimed over and over since the 1920s. To a lot of people, Gutenberg’s implementation of movable type signaled the end of all forms of fiction and non-fiction in general. (Not sure what the rational was, but it was there.) The spread of libraries was supposed to doom all writing forever.

    I’ll just say I’m not especially worried that the book is going to disappear anytime soon.

  • Brian Hodge

    While doing some background reading for this, I came across a reference to German artist Albrecht Durer, probably best known now for his woodcuts, and who was born in 1471, ~3 years after Gutenberg’s death.

    Evidently he was dismayed by the whole effect of movable type, and likened printed books to indistinguishable loaves of bread coming out of a bakery.

    Not sure if that supports anything here, or totally undercuts it, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at how tech innovation has always inspired fear and loathing … and how, regardless, the word prevails.

  • Robert Jones

    Your piece smacked more than one nail directly on the head. Your comparison of musical instruments and books is a good one. I have a synthesizer that I like, but I loved my Fender guitar, loved my Gretsch guitar, and love my present Ovation guitar. The guitars became an extension of me. I don’t feel that I play music on my Ovation. We play music together. The relationship with my synthesizer is strong but different, and the relationships are not at all mutually exclusive.

    I would probably enjoy the convenience and handy resources stored within reach of a Kindle, but a Kindle could never store the bits of history I have shared with books for the very reasons you so aptly express. I hope books and the Kindle can learn to survive together.

    By the way, I think Tommy Emmanuel would agree that, as you state, “…the musician knows and cares, and it matters because he’s not just looking for a tool, but a relationship with something that appeals to his sense of distinction.”

    Bob

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