Prospects for the Book
Lightbulb and Book, Tim Mara, 1995-6
Many books have been written about the future of the book, but the truth is that we still know little about the subject. The upshot of this paradoxical loop: the book has a glorious past and an unsettling present but, as for its future, we have no clear outlook, for the simple reason that it remains ungraspable.
It is, naturally, the snare of new communication technologies, combined with the recurring sensation that everything was better in the past, which fosters the idea that the book has entered into a twilight phase: its dismissal to the margins and ultimate disappearance seems inevitable. However, in contrast to other artefacts, the book seems to be putting up a reasonably effective self-defence; it has so far demonstrated a far greater level of resistance than that displayed – let’s say – by public telephone boxes in the face of their irreversible obsolescence. And this must be for a reason – or so we like to think.
Will the book survive, will it experience a digital resurrection, or will it lose all the importance that it has so far managed to retain? This issue has prompted an animated global conversation, which still seems far from any resolution, but is already characterized by certain clichés and commonplace observations. Thus, some invoke Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s fable about a future society in which all books are burnt, to warn of the risks of cultural desertification – although it isn’t clear whether those who cite the story have read the novel or seen the film. Elsewhere, hymns are sung to the intrinsic features of the book as an object, from the scent of ink to the yellowing of its pages, in order to denounce the impersonality of e-books. And the Borgesian metaphor of a universe converted into a library is employed to describe how the Internet functions and proclaim confidence in the new technologies. Categorical arguments and false truths abound, particularly among those wishing to sell books by announcing the death of the book. In short: confusion reigns.