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James Gleick on the Future of the Book

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Image credit: Bob Brown’s confident prediction was made in 1931. Sourced from James Gleick’s blog.

Originally written for the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, 2011. 

Closing the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival was a plenary address by author James Gleick, whose book The Information has been recently described by the ABC’s Robyn Williams as the ‘best science book ever’.
Detailing the modern history of information technology, The Information tracks how it was that ‘information’ came to be conceived as an abstract quantity, giving rise to terms like ‘bit’ to describe a unit of data. It’s obvious to us now, but it took people like Bell Telephone Labs engineer Claude Shannon to imagine that everything from the morse code to thermodynamics to jungle drums might have a measurable scientific quantity, before the information age we now live in could emerge.

But while The Information offers readers insights into how the abstraction of data has created what he calls an ‘information flood’, Gleick’s SWF address, titled ‘Perish the Thought’ was far less inclined to treat books as mere ‘containers’ of ‘content’.

“The separation”, he suggests, “is not entirely satisfying – we interact with a book in a more complex way”. A book is not merely a container for content, in the way that a wine bottle holds the wine. It is, he suggests, a “peak technology – one that is ideally suited to its task”. That means, contrary to the deafening roar of technology boosters and bloggers, the book will never die.

To support his case, Gleick took us on a journey through the many moments of the book’s anticipated demise. In the 1930s, for example, a relatively obscure American author Robert Brown wrote a manifesto declaring books “antiquated word containers”. We were reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s impassioned embrace of print’s demise in the early 1960s – the potentials then offered by fuzzy black and white television were, to MacLuhan, portents of new participatory forms of literacy in the coming ‘electric age’. Nicholas Negroponte was calling for an end to the book back in 1996, just as he claimed in 2010 that “the physical book is dead” – that digital books will replace physical books as the dominant form.

So it’s not that the claims are new. It’s just that the e-book is now a reality, and what’s more it’s splendid. Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate in 2009 how much he loves the Kindle as his “cool new literature delivery system”. Audiences agree: last week Amazon announced a new milestone, now selling more Kindle versions of book titles than print. Forget the future – the death of the book is clearly happening right now.

Not so, says Gleick. As someone who has thought a lot about the relationships between ‘containers’ and their ‘content’, Gleick is more inclined to think of the value of the book as lying in its print form. It’s the human instinct to collect objects of value that makes us love the book as an object, he suggests, and he quotes I.A Richards, who thought of the books as ‘a machine to think with’.

Like other treatments on the subject, such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, Gleick tends to think the bigger problem at hand is not in fact the demise of the book – after all 2010 saw the publication of 316,000 new titles, and that’s not including the nearly one million titles borne of ‘internet-driven’ non-traditional publishing – but rather the publishing industry itself. Gleick contends here that the trouble may be less about digital formats and more to do with the short-termism of publishers and their insatiable greed, chasing after block busters and leaving the backlists for dead.

It’s these characteristics that are only letting the e-books down too, he claims. Sloppy editing, too many widows and orphans, charging readers too much, paying writers too little – they all stand in the way of creating a satisfying e-book experience. ‘Enhanced’ e-books offering readers embedded video and applets may be well and good, but don’t, he pleas, start embedding hyperlinks into text, and don’t start introducing social bookmarks! In other words don’t introduce anything that will take the reader out of the book.

This may be a fanciful desire on Gleick’s part, but it also goes to the crux of the matter. The word not mentioned in this address was ‘narrative’, and it seemed a strange omission – after all, isn’t the only thing distinguishing ‘the book’ from ‘the internet’ in an age of e-publishing the coherence of the narrative perspective? And that old authorial voice?

In the end, for Gleick, it came down to a bit more than narrative consistency, and the trusted authorial voice nourished by publishers committed to the task of connecting writers with their audiences. The book as a ‘peak technology’ was key. Technology barriers limit the time horizon of video to around 100 years. For the internet, the time horizon is around 20 years; Facebook give or take a couple of years. The genius of the book as a peak technology is its ability to break through the technological barriers of the past, with a time horizon dating to the beginning of human history. In the antiquity of the book, then, lies its future. To Gleick: “When we find ourselves living in the perpetual present, books become the furniture of eternity”.

James Gleick is an author, journalist and biographer whose books explore the cultural ramifications of science and technology. His most recent book, ‘The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood’, is being hailed as his crowning work. Gleick is also the author of the bestselling books ‘Chaos’, ‘Genius’, ‘Faster’ and a biography of Isaac Newton. Three of these books have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalists, and have been translated into more than 20 languages. James divides his time between New York City and Florida.

Originally published at Creative Innovation.

Sarah Barns gets excited by digital publishing, but judging by the unwieldy pile of books stacked up by her bedside, remains stuck with the antiquated habits of what Ben Ehrenreich would call a ‘biblio-necrophiliac’.

Listen to Robyn Williams interview James Gleick at the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival.

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