OFF THE GRID

Can Books Be Saved?

Aug 9, 10 | 7:45 AM   byMichael Wolff
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No more books. That’s it. Barnes & Noble is on the verge of being sold for scrap and everybody—great pontificating futurist Nicholas Negroponte among them—is pronouncing the end of paper, printing, and binding.

So what about the books that already exist—I’ve got five or six thousand of them? And what about the form, I mean literature, what happens to it—the page-after-page-ness of it—when it morphs into digital plasticity and connectedness?

One curious thing about books is how long the form has existed without—at least since moveable type—significant technological enhancement. Books are books. Other than the mass-market paperback—which, arguably did greatly impact the form—change has been slow. Even the Mac has hardly made much of an impression. There are few doodads and sculpted pages and, even, drop caps in literature. It’s all stayed pretty static.

But why should that be in electronic form? Seems silly to watch these people on the subway finger the pages by. That’s artificial, these fake pages. It’s a multi-media platform and, because more technology always wins out over less technology, soon enough the narrative will be moving and acting out.

So whatever the book is, it now turns into something else. It’s the most basic point about technology: medium is message.

In other words, literature stops now. It becomes classical music. To the extent it exists, it is as inspirational historic artifact. Arguably, this has already been happening with the flight of readers to new technologies. My books become antiques (they lived for many years in an overheated West Side apartment and are, many of them, already quite brittle), mementos of not just my life but of another age. I wonder if my children will lug them around.

I wonder, too, if there’s any chance of a counter-revolution. The fight for pb&b (paper, printing, binding). A fight for the form? (Theater, for some period anyway, held out against the movies.) Can literature resist? An aesthetic rebellion? Let’s just refuse to license. The greatest evil ever known to art is licensing. That’s merchandising.

A book’s real value is in how few rather than how many people read it. The more people who read it, the more ordinary the experience becomes, the more people who posses the secret, the less important the information is.

Let’s return the book to a state of exclusiveness and heightened value.

Let’s just print.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
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