Before I begin, I must first make a confession. When I was younger, I hated books. I thought they were stupid and I often wondered why we even took the time to read when we had the TV to watch and the Internet to surf. Looking back now however, I’m baffled by how easily I excused the art of reading. I honestly can’t imagine my life without books, and with this in mind, I so desperately fear for the future of print publishing and the multi-sensory experience of reading.
Now, another confession: I don’t think the hunger for a good read will ever fully cease to exist. But sadly, it looks as though that hunger will be satisfied through a computer screen, and not with a physical book. I’m not saying that in twenty years we are all going to live in a world without any reading material, but it’s quite possible that we are close to an age of all-digital, all the time. With that, be prepared to say goodbye to the new book smell—or even the old book smell. Say goodbye to trading your most prized, dog-eared, bent-spine book with someone dear. Instead, with the rapid digital shift, it’s looking like we will preserve books instead of swapping them, and we will instead, rely upon computer and tablet-based reading.
In articles written by David Streitfeld, Brewster Kahle, and Angus Phillips, this concept of a digital takeover is thoroughly examined, and along the way a terrifying conclusion is drawn; we are quickly entering an age where digital is “in” and the physical product is a notion of the past. But in my opinion, I believe we have to reconsider what we are losing while trying to gain greater accessibility as consumers.
In order to fully grasp this change, we should first recognize how all forms of media are affected by the digital takeover, and not just print literature. In Angus Phillips’ “Does the Book Have a Future?” Phillips explains how “the switch from film to digital photography has impacted . . . the way in which people share and store their holiday snaps and family memories” before also examining how the music industry has experienced a similarly enormous shift with the transfer from “analog to digital.”[i] Here, we see that all forms of multimedia are forced to adapt, and even though the end results may allow consumers to enjoy quicker accessibility, these advancements, that parallel the literary shift, also take things away. We don’t anxiously unwrap envelopes of newly developed photos anymore, or swoon over someone holding a boom box outside of our window. Boombox Serenade. Instead we might, maybe, print a photograph on our own stock paper or share a headphone with someone, before returning to a world where we definitely don’t teach our children how to get the VCR to work, or how you have to blow on the Nintendo 64 to get things moving. In many ways, we are robbing ourselves of essential sensory experiences—with photos, music, and books—just to save money and time.
Phillips continues to explore this sacrifice as he shifts his focus from audio and photography to books, stating “more than twenty years ago, it was cool and fashionable for college students to carry around philosophy books even if they didn’t actually read them. Now college students pay more attention to their mobile phones.”[ii] As a current student, I’m not going to disagree that this is true. Is it disappointing? Yes, but it is most definitely true, as reading is hardly seen as “cool” in the grand scheme of today’s “cool” trends. Even I must admit that when I go to the library at home, I walk out with a stack of ten books, every week and a half or so, and, even though I’m excited about the material, I feel incredibly nerdy with such a bulky stack. So, in a balancing act, I end up rushing to my car, where I recover by pulling out my phone and listening to my music (which comes from my phone and not a CD or tape), to try to restore my “cool points.”
I am, of course, not ashamed of how much I love to read now, but I also recognize how odd it is to see a twenty-year-old girl with a stack of books without a classroom in sight. And how disappointing is it, that in a world so full of wonderful novels and books, a person can feel so out of place carrying just a few. But now that I am unashamed, I have embraced the entire sensory experience of holding a book in my hands. Not just the flipping of the pages, but I dog-ear anything I like. Anything I love, or want to remember. I love the smell of opening my favorite book, and being able to flip to favorite section, see what I wrote in the margins. Maybe I’ll single handedly change the popularity of book hoarding and modeling, but, well, probably not.
In the meantime, if anyone can save the art of print literature, Brewster Kahle is a man who might have a chance. He understands the importance of archiving, and since he started the Internet Archive, we as a society are not losing everything we hold dear to the digital era. This preservation of books, I believe, is so important, especially in a time where companies are strategically getting rid of books in such a terrible way, as Kahle examines: “two of the corporations involved in major book scanning have sawed off the bindings of modern books to speed the digitizing process.”[iii] Horrible, right? Absolutely terrifying, but, in a moment of lightheartedness, Kahle is every book lover’s savior, as he celebrates and encourages saving these “important objects in safe ways to be used for redundancy, authority, and in case of catastrophe.”[iv] In a world full of about 100 million books, there is a lot to lose and too much important information to disappear. Because is it really possible to add every single book to the internet, especially if it wasn’t successful in one person’s eyes? Nevertheless Kahle is persistent, and states that “the goal is to preserve one copy of every published work” (Kahle 2). I, for one, want to give this man a hug.
David Streitfeld explores similar ideas about the digital revolution in his article “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books.” In his piece, he mentions something that Kahle said to him, which I find to be particularly fascinating. Quite eloquently, he states, “you can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of a culture.”[v] With this, we must ask ourselves: How do we prepare for what this flood will bring? How do we grasp the idea of all digital, all the time? In my opinion—which I think aligns with Kahle’s efforts—we need to save the books before we lose them. He even asks, “What if, for example, digitization improves and we need to copy the books again?”[vi] Such an important question because it is oh so realistic. The horrible ease with which something can disappear is what makes this real. Look at how easily these other medium changed. How easily records turned to CDs which turned to iPods and now iPhones, and all with such a rapid shift. However, as Carmelle Anaya leaves readers with something to ease our minds: “The books will live on . . . even if the people can’t.”[vii]
After reading these articles, I don’t ever want to get rid of my most treasured covers, and, on a more practical level, I don’t like the idea of having to read books off of a computer screen. It’s okay to look to the future, but we must also look at the price of our evolution. What if our grandchildren never get to know the sensory experience of holding a book in their hands? What if they never know? Streitfeld quotes Kahle by saying, “we must keep the past as we’re inventing the future.”[viii] I couldn’t agree more. We must take care of what has come in order to continue to grow, and, in my opinion, it’s time to stop choosing ease over what matters most—sensory connection, one photo, song, and word at a time.
[i] Phillips, “Does the Book have a Future”, 2.
[ii] Ibid, 3.
[iii] Kahle, “Why Preserve Books”, 1.
[iv] Ibid, 2.
[v] Streitfeld, “Flood Tide of Digital Data”, 1.
[vi] Ibid, 2.
[vii] Ibid, 4.
[viii] Ibid, 2.
Kahle, Brewster. “Why Preserve Books? The New Physical Archive of the Internet Archive.” Internet Archive Blogs, 2011.
Phillips, Angus. “Does the Book Have a Future?.” A Companion to the History of the Book. Eliot, Simon and Jonathan Rose (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2007.Blackwell Reference Online. http://www.blackwellreference.com
Streitfeld, David. “In a Flood Tide of Digital Data, an Ark Full of Books.” The New York Times, 2012.