November 16, 2003

Better than books

A student from England wrote to ask me whether I thought books still stand at the center of our "dissemination systems".

They never did.

It is now abundantly clear that the future of serious writing lies on the computer screen. The physicality of print -- like many of the physical circumstances that shape our past -- appears to carry more weight than it deserves. We may remember the smells and fondly recall the petty discomforts of our childhood homes, and we may say with confidence that we'll never see their match again. And that's true. We may remember the time and the place where we met our first lover and think this place to be enchanted. And, for us, it always is. But that truth lies in ourselves, and not in some wondrous excellence of these places.

The codex book doesn't stand at the heart of the dissemination system of our society: it never did. Pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, sermons, speeches, and casual conversations have always been more popular and more influential. Books have always been expensive -- as expensive as a restaurant meal even after mass production made them commonplace. Throughout most of our history, few people could eat at restaurants, or own very many books.

The things we value most about the codex can be achieved in much the same way, but better, in electronic form. This is not to say (as so many do) that TV or cinema will replace books, for they have not and they cannot. We will continue to write and to read, to weigh and to discuss complex and valuable writing. If we can do better through innovative bookbinding -- or through dispensing with the binding altogether -- we may miss the heft of the old book and the smell of decaying morocco leather.

But to imagine that smell and touch matter terribly to books is to replace sense with sentiment. It is merely nostalgia for an imagined past.