Is the book a crucial cultural artefact, or just an outdated container for content?

Gigaom

If you’ve been following our coverage of the disruption of the publishing industry, you know that the meaning of the term “book” has become pretty fluid, thanks to the e-book revolution; and it’s not just the Kindle, but new offerings like Byliner and Atavist, which blur the lines between books and magazines, and even new variations on an old format like serialized fiction. So do physical books really matter any more? Is there something special about them, or are they just a historical artifact whose time has come and gone?

Internet curmudgeon Nick Carr attacked this particular question in a recent post on his blog, and got into an interesting debate with digital-media theorist Clay Shirky via the comments. Ironically, while Shirky is often criticized as a purveyor of wishful thinking about media, it is Carr who argues there is something ineffable and mysterious about the format we know as the book, while Shirky’s argument seems more based in reality

(Note: we are going to be discussing the future of the book and potential business models for book-related content at our paidContent media conference in New York on April 18, with a panel discussion featuring Atavist founder Evan Ratliff and Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks).

In his original essay — entitled “Will Gutenberg laugh last?” — Carr notes that research shows e-book reading is still on the rise, but also shows that print reading continues to command a large share of the market, and that printed book sales are “holding up relatively well.” Some publishers and distributors have even noticed a slowdown in e-book sales, says Carr, who then goes on to propose some reasons why that might be the case, including:

“We may be discovering that e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction) but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction)… the e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been.”

Shirky says even e-books themselves are transitional

Among those who showed up to comment on Carr’s piece was Shirky, who argues that it is more likely the book format itself is simply going to die out as a result of the web and other developments — and not just the printed book, but the whole concept of a book, which he describes as nothing more than a “production unit” for content, like the album was for music.

As Shirky puts it:

“Maybe books won’t survive the transition to digital devices, any more than scrolls survived the transition to movable type… what the internet portends is not the end of the paper container of the book, but rather the way paper organized our assumptions about writing altogether.”

In a comment of his own, Carr responds that whatever might happen to reference works like encyclopedias or phone books — which he agrees would make more sense in digital form — books that consist of an “extended narrative, either fictional or factual and almost always shaped by a single authorial consciousness and expressed in a single authorial voice” would always remain, even if it is in digital form, because there is more to it than just being a convenient container for content.

“Your desire to see cultural artifacts as mere technological artifacts, as “production units,” leads you to jump to the conclusion that because the narrative art of the book is resistant to digital re-formation, the narrative art is doomed to obsolescence.”

In a follow-up comment, Shirky maintains that the novel — fictional or not — is a content model that is “pretty decisively wrapped up in the affordances and limitations of print,” from their length to the idea that all of the content has to be delivered at the same time and for a single price. He argues that given the “native grain of the internet,” those features would not be transferrable to an online environment in the long term. In other words, e-books themselves might be just an interim step towards something else.

“If I’m right about this, the fate of the printed book will have less to do with competition from ebooks (at least in their ‘digital copy of print’ versions) than from competition with Longreads and New Inquiry for the time and attention of the reader of extended narratives.”

Will books follow the epic poem into oblivion?

This doesn’t sit well with Carr, however, who responds with a comment that (among other things) accuses Shirky of having an almost nihilistic approach to cultural artefacts like books, and of failing to see that in some cases having a new product or platform replace an old one might be a loss for humanity rather than a gain:

“I’m certainly not suggesting that uniquely valuable forms of media, or the modes of thinking or expression that they promote, are immune to destruction or alteration by historical forces, particularly ones driven by utilitarian concerns. But if such a medium is lost or diminished by technological or economic change, we shouldn’t simply say ‘who cares; other shit will come along.’”

In a response to an email from Wired magazine founder and author Kevin Kelly on the subject, Carr gives some examples of valuable forms of media that he believes have been lost or diminished: namely, “the oral epic poem, the symphony, the silent film with live musician accompaniment, the dramatic play, the short-form cartoon, the map [and] the LP.” And he argues that the book, the movie and the video game could also fall into this category.

In the end, Carr’s argument comes down to a belief that old forms of expression like the traditional book are better than anything that might have come along to displace them from their position of dominance in our culture — and his belief forms part of the argument in his book The Shallows, which argues that digital media is actually changing the way we think, and in general making us more stupid (a view I have argued against).

Are we seeing the rise of new artistic forms that will be as beneficial to humanity as the epic poem was, or the symphony, or the silent film? I think we are, and Clay Shirky seems to as well, but Carr clearly disagrees. Who is right won’t be known for some time, if ever.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Marcus Hansson, retro writer and Frederic della Faile




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