Will books become obsolete?

A future world without books?

In 1992, Robert Coover wrote a now-famous essay for the New York Times Book Review about hypertext literature provocatively entitled "The End of Books." In the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, "and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries..."

That same year, cybertheorist George Landow claimed that writers of print literature should feel threatened by hypertext, "just as writers of romances and epics should have felt threatened by the novel...Descendants, after all, offer continuity with the past but only at the cost of replacing it."

"The book is obsolete," declared theorist Marshall McLuhan years earlier than Coover and Landow in "Reading and the Future of Private Identity." He was quick, though, to explain himself: "Obsolescent does not mean extinction. Quite the contrary. For example, handwriting has been 'obsolete' since Gutenberg, and certainly since [the typewriter], there is more handwriting today than there ever has been." Instead, the book, he suggests, will be raised to an "art form."

Books going "extinct" seems unthinkable. The west has been called "the civilization of the book." Our religions, philosophies, literatures, our very conception of the world itself is inextricably woven into the idea of the book. But the very notion makes us consider a few concepts we take for granted. Cyberspace and hypertext forces us to reconsider the idea of writing "space," for instance, the relationship between narrative and the physical space of the "book" that's so deeply a part of our lives and thinking.

"Book culture, based on the alphabet, not only produced individual civilized Greco-Roman man but it also led, via Gutenberg, to the development of world-wide commodity markets and pricing systems," McLuhan declared. "From it derive the assembly line and the order of battle, the managerial hierarchy and the departmentalizations of scholarly decorum." In other words, life as we know it today.

Print technology fostered the idea of the individual, who experienced ideas, the world, in the pages of books instead of via village oral culture. It redefined the audience for literature by transforming it from a small group of manuscript readers or listeners to the masses who bought books to read in the privacy of their homes. (7)

Yet McLuhan in "The agenbite of outwit" pointed out that technology—television, radio, film and now 24 hour news cycle and the internet—have circled us back to tribal, that is, oral culture where we experience the world as a community instead of individually as it has been since Gutenberg's gift of mass literacy and its civilization building results. His work pointed to two technological revolutions that have fashioned western civilization as it is today: Gutenberg's press in the fifteenth century taught people to think in straight lines and the visual order of the printed page, and electricity in the nineteenth century made possible the telephone, television, computers et al, which taught people to envision many ideas at the same time—which is the very definition of hypertextual cyberspace.

Those historical shifts were truly mental shifts as well. As one hypertext theorist put it, "They signal not simply the demise of the bookmark industry or relief from the dangers of papercuts," but a way of thinking about the way we organize, conceive and imagine the world around us. To think of the world not as a book but as a hypertext is to conceive of it as a heterogeneous, mutable, interactive space where meaning is inscribed between links and between readers, "not enclosed between the limits of a front and back cover."

Does the future hold a world without books as we know them? Even though conceptually we, in the 21st century, view the world and its information more like cyberspace than a book, we still are very much a civilization based on "the book." We are psychologically and historically "linked" to it, sometimes in ways we hardly notice. For example, electronic publisher Alt-X explains its Virtual Imprint line of ebooks brings "web-readers a must-have library of works" by some of the most "provocative artists in contemporary new media culture": ("As eclectic writing makes its footprint into the electrosphere, we no longer ask "What is literature?" but, more importantly, "What is literature's exit strategy?") However, until recently, directly below the announcement were these words: "Buy our new print-on-demand books."

But no medium truly becomes extinct, states critic Amanda Griscom: "One allows us to see from here, another from there, a third from still another perspective; taken together they give us a more complete whole, a greater truth." And, of course, already we are seeing that synthesis in the ever-increasing acceptance of e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle. Traditional publishing has already embraced the form as the future along with paper printing. What of the impact on original cyberworks?

As Robert Kendall says in his essay "Hypertext: Foe to Print?": "Hypertext fiction is unlikely to kill linear fiction...It is, however, causing many authors to divert their efforts from print to the computer screen if they have an impetus toward multilinear expression or simply the desire to try something new."

Perhaps, though, Marshall McLuhan said it best: "I believe that artists, in all media, respond soonest to the challenges of new pressures...They also show us ways of living with new technology without destroying earlier forms and achievements."

Electronic Labyrinth:Rethinking the Book
Electronic Labyrinth:The End of the Book

RoadSite: references/ linkography