Amherst Bytes: Death of a Format
By Ricardo Bilton '10, Staff Writer
Something expensive is happening to the future of books right now. On one side of the aisle of commerce is Steve Jobs, waving his iPad with rapidly increasing vigor. On the other side sits a lone bohemian clutching his copy of Infinite Jest, horn-rimmed glasses glinting. He hisses at you. These two equally bespectacled foes aren’t debating whether 2010 should be the Year of Apple. No, they are trying to figure out what to do with your books. All of them.

There is a debate that rages every few years when a device manufacturer releases their answer to the e-book reader. The debate, embodied by the headlines that precede the articles singing the praises of these new products, tends to look a little like this: “Will the [new e-book reader] kill the library?” “Apple aims to kill the bookstore.” “Is the paperback dead?” Usually, the responses to these questions end in a succinct, journalistic shrug or a vague conclusion about the future of print media in general. Few answers suffice. As the librarians of the world clench their hands in agony and uncertainty, Steve Jobs perches on a throne of Benjamins, painting his nails with pure gold.

Some, though, are pretty clear on what’s happening with the paperback. Craig Mod is a book designer and programmer who, in a recent article on his website, said something as tantalizing as it was confounding: “Print is dying. Digital is surging. Everyone is confused. Good riddance.”

It might, at first glance, appear to be something of a silly thing for a book designer to say that in the future his industry will share company with Shakespeare and Jimi Hendrix. But it’s hard to argue against him. The thesis of his article, which was compelling enough to reach the desks of the Technology section of The New York Times, is that devices like the iPad represent the future of textual content. Mod splits content into two spheres. On the one hand, you have something like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, where the form of the content is important because it is tied to the visceral experience of reading; on the other hand we find what Mod calls formless content, which is marked by its ability to meld into whatever medium it is presented, whether it be a paperback or iPad screen.

For Mod, the worth of a work should not be measured in the format through which it is presented but rather through the statement it is trying to make. Thus, the paperback (or newspaper or vinyl record) is in no way tied inextricably to the content it carries. Enter the future, hailed by its harbingers, the iPads and Kindles of today. In the future — which is either a dystopic or utopic one, depending on your slant — the paperback has been replaced by the bit. Books aren’t books, but rather book-like assemblages of text made to be presented on the screen rather than the page.

And in the background, muted by the fabric of tweed shirtsleeves, are the sobs of the Neo-Luddites. “The literary world is doomed!” they wail, eyes blinded by their tears and tablet computer screens. We empathize with them, sharing their fears. Even the most technology-minded of us are cognizant of that special quality of the book which makes it special. Walter Benjamin, in his seminal work “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” used the word “aura” to describe that special quality of the physicality of a book or painting. If the reproduction of art removes from it the unique quality of its creation, then the complete lack of physical existence afforded it by the digital medium strips that special quality away even further. It’s the difference between seeing the “Mona Lisa” in person and seeing a picture of it.

But the reality is this: philosophical discussions on the nature of media and art mean nothing to the average consumer. To most people, content is content, and the most desirable content invariably appears on the cheapest medium. In the future, as shown quite clearly today, that medium will be the digital realm. With no printing and transportation costs, the demise of the paperback novel, in theory, means a drastically reduced cost for consumers. And consumers tend to like that.

But in our paperless future, what is to become of the book lovers of today? They will still be around, I’m sure, collecting books and pining for the physical past. Nor will the book disappear entirely. Instead, be comforted by the notion that from the ashes of a dead medium will rise a more sensible successor. Gone will be the supermarket fiction, but reappearing with greater vigor will be the book more intimately in tune with its physicality. The book of the future will be built with posterity in mind. If that sounds expensive, it’s because it is. In the future, books won’t be cheap. We have a lot to look forward to.

Issue 18, Submitted 2010-03-09 21:49:34