News that movable type is on its way out in China, where it was invented (pre-Gutenberg) and has involved using and storing upwards of 4,000 characters (versus the alphabets of western languages), offers a potent reminder of the gains and losses of transformative technologies. In juxtaposition: a jeremiad from Luke Johnson, the UK business leader who tried (and failed) to turn around the fortunes of the Borders bookstore chain, and now says that high street bookstores are dead. (http://www.deadline.com/2010/06/ex-c4-boss-warns-bookstores-are-doomed/)
There’s no artifact more central to human society’s progress than the book, which is why Gutenberg proved the Silicon Valley of early modern Europe (catalyzing and enabling everything from the Reformation to democracy and public education). As the Murdoch press retreats behind paywalls, Google’s book projects offer a potential lifeline to threatened publishers even as they corral dead authors, and I enjoy scanning half a dozen newspapers online before I need to buy one (including, I should add, their book reviews, which lead me to buy more books than before) – it seems too early, much too early, for the entry of either Jeremiah or his nemesis, Pollyanna. We just don’t know. As to those bookstores, the entirely unpredictable virus-like spread of the coffee house, an 18th century institution now ubiquitous in the 21st, may show the way. Can’t people make their own coffee? Somehow they prefer to drink it in little rooms up and down those high streets. Don’t they have offices and libraries to work in? Somehow they prefer to write their papers and work their clients and play with their spreadsheets – and, indeed, author their books, as I have one or two of mine, and as the most successful of all living writers, J.K. Rowling, famously did with hers – cheek by jowel with stay-at-home-moms escaping those homes with their retinue of little people and even the occasional kind of person who “used to” frequent cafes before the risogimento of cafe society (remember when?) – in a coffee house. My suspicion is that books and coffee have a bright high street future together, along with people who bring their digital worlds with them but also like to hang with other humans too.
Yet some things we do know. Transformational change, invariably, comes about by analogy. The pieces re-arrange, the whole continues in a new form but a recognizable. The book function, like the news function, is central to human flourishing and will continue so to be. The aesthetics of print have already become detached from its informational function. That works well with pulp fiction, as it does also with pulp fact – all the way from the latest fat thriller to the latest edition of the greatly overpriced college or high school text – both of whose days, or at least whose years, are numbered, perhaps in single digits. (A slimming of publisher and author profits for textbooks is an easy prediction, and a very good thing too.) It works barely at all at the higher end, where works of fact as of fiction have an intended shelf-life that requires shelving, and draw from the reader a good deal more than eyeball attention. Form is starting to follow function all over again.