Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Future of the Book

Finally catching up with my reading and perusing The Australian Literary Review over my eggs and toast this morning my eye was caught by Geordie Williamson's article on "Kindling for postmodern pagans" or essentially his musings on the future of the book.

As his most eloquently puts it "There is a revolution under way, the most dramatic change in the way we produce, read and disseminate texts since the invention of mechanical moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1430s. It seems this generation will preside over the decline of a technology that has played a central role in forming the modern mind. Our world has been built by books: the world of the future will be made out of bits." (page 8 ALR Volume 6, Issue 2, March 2011)

Williamson points out the impact this revolution is having on publishers, authors and bookstores (as evident in the collapse of the REDgroup recently). It has moved some writers such as Crikey's Guy Rundle to ask deep, more fundamental questions such as "The wider question ... is how we will sustain any form of public spatial life at all - as the last shared, necessary space dissovles. "

Williamson feels that there is "..an anxiety (about) the digital revolution's headlong rush: a sense that for every online gain in speed, efficiency and ease of access, some erosion of the human sphere occurs. Rundle is rightly concerned by the potential disappearance of bookshops, which have operated in Australia in much the same way that coffee houses did in Regency London - as a third place outside the home and work, where ideas may be freely exchanged - but this remains a broader cultural and political concern. The book as we know it faces other specific threat from what happens next." (page 8-9)

e-BOOKs is what happens next! Williamson write "digitisation of the written word in the future of books" Which of course has impacts for the librarian in schools! "What is undeniable, if only through an accumulation of anecdotal evidence, is that the way we read is altered by long exposure to the web. Its punch news items, embedded multimedia and promiscuous hyperlinks all play havoc with our attention spans."

Williamson quotes from Nicholas Carr's essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" in which Carr observes that he struggles now to immerse himself in reading as he once found easy. And as Nietzsche felt that "our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts" so too does David Malouf who often writes in long hand in order to keep the rhythm and flow of his thoughts. Williamson contends that "the corollary is equally true: our reading equipment shapes our reception of such thoughts." The medium in which we read will shape the forming of our thoughts - to immerse oneself into another world of contemplative philosophy, sublime poetry or prosaic literature or to analyse information - two different forms of reading - which possbily, Williamson believes lends themselves to different modes. The former to the books - single use and so much more conducive to the immersion and deep reading required; the latter perfectly suited to the ebook and online revolution.

Williamson is certainly no Luddite when it comes to ebooks. He points out that there is exciting and amazing potential for ebooks to really enhance the reading experience. "Google "enhanced ebooks" and you will discover expansions in the idea of the book so radical it is scarcely possible to draw a line between old (print/paper) technology and new.

He states that "we can assume, for example, the idea of pages and pagination will soon go, since that sequential system is tied to printed books alone." Pity - I am a fan of the sequential pages - being a methodical type. "In their place we will see sound an image increasingly tied to text, as well as collaborative annotation and commentary of the kind already being used for on-line music" which has enormous implication for teaching of English and literacy in the near future.

Essentially, Williamson's thesis is that "It is the infinite possibility contained in each e-reader (not single use devices but multi-modal and completely different to the printed book) that makes them destoryers of immersion" the type of reading which Williamson asserts is essential for certain types of texts.

Sven Birketts put forward the different between contemplative and analytical thought and that "I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed kinds of thinking. Then I realise that the internet and the novel are opposites as well."

Hence "Novels, poetry, short stories, writing on metaphysics: anything that demands contemplative immersion and is resistant to improvement by regular updating should, ideally, remain as it is" i.e. in printed book form.

An interesting footnote to the article was the Espresso Book Machine - which sounds brilliant - Costing under $100,00 and small enough to fit in a library office or a bookshop window. This machine can print, collate and bind a single book in minutes at the request of the consumer - so it can find through the digitisation of books - great to for out of print books or backlists - could have a wonderful application in libraries.

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