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The future of the book

I just came from a discussion of the future of the book at Harvard, although it was actually more like the propedeutic for that discussion. Quite fascinating though.

First spoke Ann Blair, a history professor at Harvard, who has a book on the history of information overload (particularly in the early modern period) coming out in the fall of 2010. She talked about how printed books were first received: Positively, the printing press was appreciated for the labor it saved (an early estimate said that four men in one day could create as many books with a printing press as ten could do with a quill in a year) and for driving down the cost of books. (You had to count on selling 300 copies before you’d break even, whereas hand-copied manuscripts were done on commission.) But people also complained because printed books were often shoddily done, and there were too many of them. Ann cited Pliny saying that here is no book so bad that some good cannot be made of it, balanced by Seneca who urged people to read a few books well. [Classic fox vs. hedgehog matchup.]

She then pointed to 16th-17th century references books, including dictionaries, collections of beautiful and elevating sentences (“florilegia”) [twitter, anyone?] and commonplace books. Printing made it possible to have very big books. One of the commonplaces started with 1.5M words, was revised to include 4.5M and had a sequel with 15M words. (Wikipedia had 511M words the last time Ann checked.) Conventions, therefore, arose for finding your way through all those words. Some techniques were typographical (Aristotle’s text in bigger letters, followed by commentaries, etc.) but indexes became more sophisticated. The 15M commonplace book had over 100 pages of entries on a single word, for example (“bellum,” “war”). The indices sometimes had mutliple levels of indentation.

Ann finished by showing an illustration of a 1689 piece of furniture the size of a closet, designed to organize knowledge. There were 3,000 hooks for headings, with multiple hooks for slips of paper under each heading.

I asked whether the availability of slips of paper encourage the de- and re-structuring of knowledge. Ann answered first by talking about the history of slips of paper — the printing press drove up the demand for paper and thus drove down its cost — and then said that it’s hard to gauge the effect on thought because writers were already collecting miscellanies, such as commonplace books.

Ann also explained that large alphabetical concordances had already been created before slips of paper by assigning a letter to each monk and having him go through the Bible looking for each word that begins with that letter.

Then John Palfrey gave a talk about how the world and books look to those born into the digital age. To these digital natives, said John, the world doesn’t divide into online and offline; it’s all converged. They assume digital access. (YouTube is the #2 search engine, JP said.) They expect to be co-creators. They also give away too much information and need to learn to do for themselves the gatekeeping that used to be done for them. The opportunities are huge, JP said, for creativity, reuse, and making knowledge together. JP expects libraries will continue to become social spaces where we learn and explore together, and he expects physical books to persevere because they are so well engineered for knowledge and extended argument. [Personally, I’m not convinced of that. I think books may turn out to be an accident of paper. Check back in 30 years to see who’s right.]

A fascinating afternoon. I wish it had gone on longer.

During the Q&A, Robert Darnton, Harvard’s head librarian, responded to a criticism of the new tools for navigating the university’s collection, by saying that it was still “in beta.” It’s open to all to suggest improvements, many of which have already been incorporated. For me, hearing Harvard’s chief librarian talk about a catalog being “in beta” says it all. (Darnton also talked about Harvard’s position on the Google Books settlement, about which he has been a prominent and eloquent critic.) [Tags: ]

5 Responses to “The future of the book”

  1. David, do you the link for the presentations?

  2. The Book as the vehicle for the evolution of consciousness vs the Internet as the vehicle for the transportation of consciousness.

    So the question might be – How does new emerging technology advance the evolution of human consciousness? Newspapers and magazines and television rely upon advertising for revenues and their formats can easily be replicated on the computer. The computer is a vehicle that can disseminate news, articles, video, and personal communications as effectively or more effectively than newspapers, magazines, television programs, and telephones. The computer allows both text and advertising. The book is one of the last places where advertising has not desacralized the landscape. Already we have seen the dissolution of newspapers and magazines and the merging of computer technology with that of the phone and the television.

    I see Kindle as an alternative to the way one reads a book but not a threat to the book itself. What I have witnessed is the regrettable disappearance of used book stores due to online mail order stores. As a book lover with a library of 5,000 books, I can see no ways in which reading from a computer can replicate the experience of reading a book you hold in your own hands in the open air. Of course I still work with that ancient tool called a pen which can underline and create marginalia.

    I also think you have to separate the concept of ‘book’ from the medium that prints it. Paper allowed consciousness to evolve. So again the question might be – how can the computer allow consciousness to evolve?

    Yes I understand that books do not appear to be interactive, but I disagree here. A book allows an extended and intimate interaction between two consciousnesses. A book should be an elevated form of communication that has taken extensive time to create and demands extensive time to appreciate and understand.

    A book is not a conversation or a discussion. I think that the computer can greatly increase and facilitate conversation and discussion but I do not see it replacing the book unless our society devolves to the point that illusion and surface reality replace truth and depth reality (which does seem to be happening).

    Luckily computers can not replace the forests, or the seas, or the birds despite the proliferation of virtual reality. Nor can they replace the need for truth, self-reflection,and aesthetic experience. I do not think that the book is “an accident of paper” but an inevitability of the human spirit. But I am also sadly aware that modern society and its technologies will cause the extinction of the majestic ‘elephant’ so why not the magnificent ‘book’.

  3. Concerning the future of the book, reading David Gelernter’s “The Second Coming: A Manifesto” might be useful. David Gelertner is recognized as one of America’s greatest computer scientist.

    He wrote, “We know that big developments are inevitable in the software world — if only because nothing in that world corresponds to a “book.” You can see a book whole from the outside. You know in advance how a book is laid out — where the contents or the index will be — and how to “operate” one. As you work through it, you always know where you stand: how far you have gone and how much is left. “Book” can be a physical object or a text — an abstraction with many interchangeable physical embodiments. These properties don’t hold for file systems or web sites. You can’t see or judge one from the outside, anticipate the lay-out, tell where you stand as you work your way through.”
    “Whenever we are organizing information, the book is too powerful an idea to do without in some form or other.”

  4. Hello
    Although I’ve no ‘hived’ doubt about such as books and their meaning, we need specifics if there’s;ever, to be that which is ‘ hived’, rather than meanings about what hived was exactly the books we either read; at print, or faced upon entering school.
    The bee begets the Queen, and I’m no unseen King either!
    How had Caesar; his books, banished wontonly?
    I ask;such, for the Hive Bees can’t, thus ill; inclined to gather you’re nector.
    We want words; herein, as we should spell such as the Hive;maintains, rather than those that we; ourselves selct before the bees might.
    May this be subjective?
    I’ll teel you you this, then you can tell the Bees; and Queen, whatever’s current.
    Please remind us that this; conjunction, surplants;what was, rather than ‘is going’ before the Queen finds out.
    It'[s about time!

  5. Hi
    As a mobile book retailer I certainly don’t wish for the demise of paper books. However, I feel my grandchildren’s children will ask their great grand dad about those strange heavy things sitting on the shelf. Or even worse. They might ask me what I did for a living. Yes, like the horse and cart, I feel the future of books will be one without trees and touch. It’s called progress.
    Bill Griffith
    Kiplings Bookshop

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