The Golden Age of Books: Revisiting the Ancient and the Ultimate

Depending on who you ask, print books are dying, e-readers are far from perfect, traditional publishing is lost at sea, and self-publishing is looked upon as a gold rush by some, and fool’s gold by others. I have a different view point.

I think we’ve entered a golden age of books.

Of course, the key word here is “book.” It seems to me that what gets lost in discussions of print books versus e-books is that, for all intents and purposes, the content is the same. The words that fall between the covers of a print book are the same words you will find in the e-book. What differs is the medium used to present the content. In some ways, the reaction people have to the evolution of the book from print to electronic is surprising when you consider how music has evolved. From live performances to recordings on a phonograph to various types of audio cassettes to compact discs and finally to fully digital media. Over the decade music has required a variety of different “players” but the notes that make up the pieces are the same. If we suppose a book to be the content as opposed to the medium in which it is contained, then indeed we have entered a golden age for books.

The print medium may be sick, but like old records, it is not yet dead. We have a fondness for the medium that will create enough of a demand for new books to continue to be printed and old books to be better protected. The numbers of books printed in this medium will certainly go down, but the number of books available to people will blossom and that is in large part thanks to e-books.

An e-reader, regardless of what it is, is just another medium for containing what it is we really care about: the book. E-readers have come a long way in the last few years but they are still far from perfect. They require a power source. They require a mechanism for getting the books onto the devices. They can be a costly initial investment. So, I imagine, was a phonograph when it first hit the market. Then, too, there are some aesthetic issues to address. We have grown used to a certain presentation and when the medium doesn’t present the content in the way we have grown accustomed, we balk and are reluctant to change–unless there is obvious benefit in doing so.

And there are benefits to the electronic medium. Reproduction is a digital process. Like software, all of the investment goes into make that first copy. Thereafter, reproduction is a simple operation. So simple, in fact, that you can do it yourself, if you wanted to.

You can’t ruin an e-book. You can destroy the e-book reader. You can delete the file containing the book, but that file can be easily reproduced from the source. An e-book can’t be burned. Constant contact with oxygen won’t turn the pages yellow. They will not go brittle and flake. You can mark up an e-book in digital format without ruining the book. You can share your markups with others in a systematic way, crowd-sourcing in a way that simply isn’t possible on a reasonable scale in the print medium.

Because the content is digital, it can be more readily accessible than a print book. Leave a print book at home and you’ll have to find a new copy to read on your vacation. Leave your e-reader at home, and you merely need use a different e-reader to pick up where you left off on the book. (The first time I left my Kindle at home, I went nuts on my lunch break at work–until I realized that I could open up the Kindle App on my iPhone and continue seamlessly from where I left off.)

Of course, e-books have not been around for very long, relative to books. There is a question, therefore, as to whether the digital medium will preserve the content into the distant future. Given our investment in the electronic infrastructure, I’m optimistic that books I have in electronic format now will be available to people 100 years from now.

Books–what we think of as the content on the pages–have been around since humanity learned to write. In that time, the medium used to present them has changed evolved many times, but in the end, you still have a what we call a book. This latest evolutionary step, from print to electronic, is a natural progression. It has helped to make some books more affordable. It has certainly made them more readily accessible. No longer do I have go to the bookstore to pick up a book (and worry that they might be out of stock). I can order the book online and have it on my e-reader within seconds. I can pre-order books and get them on my e-reader the moment they become available.

This latest step has also complicated books. Perhaps the most significant change here is that we are really “licensing” the books we buy, something that is more limiting in the abstract sense, but for the most part, doesn’t take away from the joy of reading. Already libraries have the ability to loan e-books. And so do individuals, in some cases. I was able to loan my Kindle e-book copy of Stephen King’s Blockade Billy to a friend. The copy appeared on his Kindle for a 2-week period at which point it reverted to mine. Not a perfect system, but this, too, will evolve into something better.

In thinking about the changes in books over the last several years, I can’t help but think of Isaac Asimov’s famous essay, “The Ancient and the Ultimate.” Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF) in January 1973, the essay take the notion of TV “cassettes” (new technology o the time) to its natural conclusion. Asimov talks about cassette players that eventually become mobile, with a self-contained power source. He imagines a player that makes its images plain to you, but doesn’t intrude upon those around you. He imagines a future in which on/off switches are not needed and the player can be controlled by will: the player would stop when you take your eyes off of it, and start up again where you left off when you look at it. He imagines a device that would allow you to play the cassette at your own pace, move forward or backward at will, skip or repeat sections. Finally, he writes:

You’ll have to admit that such a cassette would be a perfect futuristic dream: self-contained, mobile, non-energy-consuming, perfectly private, and largely under the control of the will.

Ah, but dreams are cheap so let’s get practical. Can such a cassette possibly exist? To this, my answer is Yes, of course. The next question is: How many years will we have to wait for such a deliriously perfect cassette?

I have an answer for that, too, and a quite definite one. We will have it in minus five thousand years–because what I have been describing… is a book!

E-readers will continue to evolve. Formats of e-books will evolve along with them. The publishing industry will get carried along and will change some along the way. But in the end, a book will still be a book. Whether you are softly turning yellowed pages, or swiping your finger across a screen, Gone With the Wind will read the same. And as you settle into reading whatever it is that pleases you, before you know it, the medium will melt away, the words will fade into the background, and if the writer knows their business, you will be transported into the world that they have created for you.

And if the electronic form makes books more readily available; if the nostalgia for the print form makes people hold onto their collections and continue to provide a revenue stream for printers and distributors, well, in the end it is the books that win, and we find ourselves entering a golden age for  books, regardless of their medium.

4 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Books: Revisiting the Ancient and the Ultimate

  1. I’m optimistic that books I have in electronic format now will be available to people 100 years from now.

    I’m not so sure, Jamie. We seem to be awfully good at having old formats of files and media become depreciated and unusuable with stunning stupidity.

  2. Paul, that is absolutely true, but I would expect there to me more thought put into the formats for e-books, and that eventually, a small set of standard formats will emerge and dominate. Those will evolve as well, as new capabilities are added, but my main point was that the content of the e-book would be preserved. And electronic copy of Gone With the Wind will, 100 years from now, contain the same text as it does today, even if the format in which it is stored is different. Of course, I freely admit I am an optimist in this respect.

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