Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lesson for the Digital Future

My review in The Star today :

Two renowned authors share insights into the future of the book.

This Is Not The End Of The Book

Authors: Jean-Claude Carrière & Umberto Eco

Publisher: Harvill Secker, 336 pages

THESE are anxious times for book lovers. New digital technologies mean that we find ourselves on the edge of a literary revolution of a magnitude that hasn’t been seen since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Industry insiders predict that the traditional, printed book will disappear completely within the next 25 years in the face of competition from e-books and the easy availability of plentiful information at the click of a mouse on the Internet.

Last year,, as good a barometer of changes in book-buying habits as any, announced that for the first time sales of digital books have outstripped US sales of hardbacks on its website. American bookstore chain Barnes and Noble claim that they are selling three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined. We are witnessing an increasing number of libraries ditching physical books in favour of digital content. There are huge shakeouts in the publishing industry, and book retailers are also under threat.

No wonder so many of us worry that the book as we know it, the artifact that we have grown up with, and which has delivered to us so much knowledge and personal pleasure, will be lost to us.

This Is Not The End Of The Book delivers some much needed hope and reassurance. Jean-Philippe de Tonnac brings together, in a series of conversations, novelist and critic Umberto Eco (best known for his novels The Name Of The Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum), and playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière to debate the place of the book in the digital age. Both are bibliophiles of the most devoted kind and have a deep understanding of the history of the book.

On the question of whether or not the book will survive, Eco sets our mind at rest within the first few pages. The book, he points out, is already an entirely effective piece of technology and “like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

But so far most of the innovations in storing data (including floppy discs, videotapes, and CD-ROMs) in recent decades have become obsolete incredibly quickly, with the resultant loss of important cultural heritage. Printed books have proved more durable, so that “we can still read a text printed five centuries ago”.

As well as contemplating the present and future of reading, this book takes us on a tour of the past. De Tonnac tosses into the ring the questions that spark the discussion, and what ensues is a delightfully meandering conversation, full of fascinating asides and anecdotes.

Eco and Carrière look at the way that words have been stored over time, and how ideas have been communicated down the ages. They give us insights into how the book lovers of the past got their fix; they talk about libraries, editors, Shakespeare, the holy books of Islam and Christianity; and about the books that are lost to us through accidental fire, negligence and stupidity. Indeed, one interesting question that is raised is whether the books that have survived from ancient times actually are the greatest works of their time, and what might we have actually lost along the way?

In previous centuries you didn’t need to have read a great deal to be considered well-educated: in the 18th century, for example, the upper classes would be able to carry their whole libraries with them in trunks when they travelled as just 30-40 books contained all the learning of the decent individual. Today, of course, much more is published and considered important than it is possible to read. Eco and Carrière talk about how we are deeply influenced even by the books we have not read.

No discussion of books and reading down the ages would be complete without a discussion of censorship. Book burning is seen as a symbolic act of “purification” after a culture has been “poisoned by certain books”. “You have to respect a book’s power to want to destroy it,” says Carrière – Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses being a case in point.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the conversation is the personal insights into the relationship that the two have with books. Carrière’s first contact with books was with the Bible in the church in the French village where he grew up; and also with George Sand’s Valentine, a book that his father read over and over because he was fond of it. Eco recounts how he fell in love with reading, poring over the eclectic stack of unbound volumes his book-binder grandfather left behind.

They go on to discuss their personal libraries, how they gathered the books they have, how they display them, and to whom they plan to bequeath them eventually. Eco has 50,000 books in his various homes, 1,200 of which are rare titles, among them books on “human error, bad faith and idiocy” – subjects that, he says, fascinate him. Carrière says that he owns 30,000-40,000 books, 2,000 of them ancient.

Have they read all the books in their vast libraries, though? Carrière replies that “a library is not necessarily made up of books that we’ve read, or even that we will eventually read. They should be books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do.” Eco agrees with him. “A library is an assurance of learning,” he says.

That’s a lesson one hopes will be remembered in our headlong rush towards the digital future.

1 comment:

Yusuf Martin said...

I am moved to comment that there is no question that the book - as container of words and sometimes images - is in danger. The question is will books continue to be printed on paper. An ebook is a book, but in digital form. Now it is possible to take as many books with you as will fit onto whichever hard drive you have - up to and including 1 Terabyte. No need for trunks. Over the past few months I have come to prefer ebooks over printed tomes, both for their portability and legibility. Reading an epub book from my Motorola Xoom I can adjust the font size as my eyesight is no longer as sharp as it was. I can store many books and have them bookmarked ready to open where I left off reading. I can also easily jump between books.

I have no doubt that physical books will always remain - as specialist items, designed and beautifully bound - as objects, as art works, but no longer necessary as mere containers of words and images.