Like Heck the Paper Book is Dying

“Is it any more appropriate to consume Quixote on an e-reader than it is to, say, watch a colorized, 3-D Citizen Kane?”

In 2012, Michael Agresta wrote a piece for Slate describing what he believed books would look like in the future. His piece is called What Will Become of the Paper Book?: How their design will envolve in the age of the Kindle. Quite ominously, he begins: “The change has come more slowly to books than it came to music or to business correspondence, but by now it feels inevitable. The digital era is upon us.”

Upon reading Agresta’s introductory paragraphs, I was skeptical of continuing to read. Great, I thought, he’s one of them. He wants to chuck the paper book. He doesn’t understand the importance of paper, the lastingness of the hard copy, the value of marginalia.

I’m glad I ignored myself and continued to read.

Pretty quickly after his introduction, Agresta acknowledges that “the visual effect of a well-made book, even an inexpensive paperback, unquestionably shapes our interpretation and appreciation of the text… presence means something.”

Agresta references theory, discussing paratext (everything that frames a text) and asserting that “as e-books overhaul and re-present many long-standing paratextual categories, we trade off layers of established meaning.” “Layers of established meaning”? I’ll admit that I am not 100% certain as to what he means by that, as I’m not sure that meaning can ever be “established.” Nevertheless, the notion of “established meaning” – and layers of it – is cool to consider.

In addition to the idea that e-readers change our perceptions of books, Agresta also touches on the fact (yes, fact!) that some books just wouldn’t work on e-readers. When I wrote about the speed-reading app Spritz, I briefly touched on this. Here’s a snippet of my thoughts, as of March 13th:

“There are, in fact, times when a writer might want to speed up or slow down the reader; this can be done by choosing particular words, or by changing the amount of white space on the page, or by altering the page’s layout/format (see House of Leaves for an example of this one), or by a million other ways. Whether his/her work is fiction or nonfiction, a writer has the ability to at least partially dictate how a reader reads.”

A page from The Medium is the Massage. Try digitizing THIS.

House of Leaves is just one book that has been designed in such a way that makes it nearly impossible to read digitally. There are many others – Tree of CodesThe Medium is the Massage, and War and Peace in the Global Village, to list just a few – that are also limited to paper form due to their aesthetics. Certainly some aesthetic books can be, and have been, digitized, but more often than not the physicality of these books is considered subordinate to their text. Just take a look at most of the digitized William Blake, whose images are just as important as his text – most of the images haven’t been included in digital copies. (In all fairness, though, many Blake paper books also don’t include the images, which is pretty messed up.)

But people aren’t dumb. They see that, sometimes, an e-book is no substitute for a paper one. Mass audiences are starting to realize that a book can be valuable as an aesthetic object, which explains the recent surging interest in pretty editions. Just look at the success of artisanal publisher The Porcupine’s Quill or the continuing popularity of zines.

Why are these pretty books/zines so popular? Agresta suggests that “as mass-market paperbacks give way to e-books, fine press editions seem poised to appeal to the nostalgic consumer of paper books.” Nostalgia? Maybe a little bit. But I say it’s simpler than that. I say that people just dig pretty things. This isn’t even just about books – it’s about our new visuality.

I’ll write about what I mean when I say “new visuality” in another post. Basically, though, I’m referring to our culture’s (pretty recent) re-privileging of images over text in knowledge acquisition and intellectual understanding. Pretty books reflect this privilege. “The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and ‘aura,'” Agresta writes. “For better or for worse.”

So is the paper book dying? As we know it, in its black-text-on-white-paper state, sure. But the paper book in general doesn’t seem to be going away. Rather, the new paper book is taking on forms that mirror those of Medieval manuscripts. We’re seeing an increasing emphasis on the visuality of the book, and an increasing demand for good quality. Books, like they were in the Middle Ages, are once again becoming treasure items. This isn’t about nostalgia – this is about changing ways of reading and changing cultural values.

This is an exciting time for the paper book. We shouldn’t be mourning the loss of it; we should be celebrating this new chapter of its life.


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