In 2009, I was very considered that we’d soon seen the end of physical books. 10 years later, I’m not. I think we’ll have books for a very long time. Concern about privacy, censorship, and surveillance has not similarly abated.
Every other day I read something about how books will stop being physical objects and exist only digitally. Publishing houses are producers of information, not artifact, etc.
I love to read, but you’ll never hear me say that I like to do anything like snuggle up to or get cozy with a book. But the continued existence of books as objects is extremely important.
From the beginning, at least in the West, books in book form have been subversive. The Gutenberg Bible was subversive. Common Sense was subversive. More to the point, the printed word as printed word on paper is an historic engine of unrest, access, and change. All those pamphlets and papers. These things being swapped and smuggled and shared. Tyrants burning them. Schools banning them. People reading them anyway.
We talk so much about going “off the grid” in terms of energy consumption. We long for it. Can you imagine not being able to do one of the most basic human functions (read) off the grid? The concept of a bookless society makes even less sense than that of a cashless one. Subversion (and I don’t mean violence or lunacy), education, self-improvement without censor, these requires objects that can’t be deleted when political winds change, even as the economy depends on the 1 or 2/3’s of it operating off the books.
I’m not a publishing professional so I won’t pretend to understand all of the economics of the industry, but I know these aren’t exactly fattened times. I’m not saying the general trend won’t be toward electronic publishing and distribution. It probably will. But if we need books, we also need books to be books, physical objects we can hand, physically, to others. Things we can physically protect and need to.
Of course, much of this discussion is moot. Let’s imagine a bookless society. It should be easy to imagine that in this society, some branch of some government somewhere manages to track, or, even worse, decide what we read. Not very far-fetched. Maybe every computer even gets a patch that scans everything you send to your printer and uploads it to some database. When the things people want to read are banned, deleted, or otherwise made unavailable, people will pick up papers and pens and start writing. They’ll make their own presses and they’ll post their bills and broadsides and leave their chapbooks and pamphlets in donut shops and laundrymats and in hotels like the Gideons.
Unless, of course, we stop teaching kids how to make letters and numbers by hand.
Penmanship, the engine of democracy.