Phuket Gazette

The Future of the Printed Book in the Digital Age
By Sean Gabb
(Published in The Phuket Gazette, August 2014)

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 Today, 35mm film can still be bought, but high street developing shops have been replaced by printing machines with media card inputs.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.

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