Do Books Have a Future?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Good Book Guide on 1 June 1997

Will computers make books obsolete? Of course not. No. They won’t. Or so I keep telling myself. I’m embarking on yet another book tour in my now four-year-old career as a published author (there was a book back in 1990, but that one doesn’t count). l’ve been able to witness, first-hand, the way computers and the Internet have influenced the book world’s reading habits, buying patterns, production cycles, and marketing decisions. While these technologies have had a somewhat negative impact on certain aspects of the publishing industry, they will only help the book, authors and readers in the long run.

First off, computers don’t make people read less; they make us read more. Most of the kids I know who are lucky (or wealthy) enough to be online have astonishing literacy skills. No matter how visual the world wide web might get in its interface, so far it’s still a word-based medium when you follow anything through or try to glean any real information.

Further. because Internet users need to type everything they wish to communicate, they have developed extremely subtle forms of written communication. I’m not just talking about ‘emoticons’ like the :). I believe that online interaction actually makes a person’s writing better. People engaged in heated discussions in USENET groups or bulletin-board conferences - whether they’re arguing about cold fusion or Courtney Love - are forced to spar with language. I can tell when I’ve received e-mail from people raised on the Internet because their sentences are dense with innuendo, compensating for the limited time and keystrokes they can devote to the task. Kids online today write much better than I did at their age.

But just because the written word is alive and well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the printed page, bound to hundreds of others and glued into a cardboard cover, will survive, too. There are only so many media-hours in a day, the pessimists warn, and book-reading takes up too many for it to remain a viable format. Digital text retrieval systems yet-to-be invented will allow for the downloading of an entire text in seconds, and people will be able to read them on small electronic clipboards.

Perhaps. However. just when it appears that a new medium is going lo replace its predecessor, we tend to figure out the true value of the older. Experts thought that the videocassette would put the traditional movie house out of business. Instead, it turned the general public into amateur film historians, while giving cinema owners an idea of what they could offer us that videotapes can’t: giant screens, THX sound, glamorous lobbies, and an evening out of the house.

A new medium replaces an old one only if it does everything better. Computer networks and CD-ROMS can do certain things better than books. They are better for rapid retrieval of database information, and serve well as encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspaper libraries, and catalogues where searching and other nonlinear tasks are the most important.

What online text has demonstrated to us, though, is that books are more than repositories for information. They are objects, and they are meant to be experienced as such. The usual function of a dictionary is to provide the meaning of a word. The function of a book is to provide a reading experience. It is more than a transmission of data: it is a transmission of essence.

Not that computers don’t transmit their own sort of essence, too. CD-ROM games like Myst proved so successful because they captured something essential about the seemingly random, user-directed navigational path of a computer world. Myst was a funhouse-style experience where, freed from the linear constraints of literary fiction, the storytellers could let the users wander around a deserted island and discover clues for themselves. This style was dictated by the particularly free-form quality of the computer-game medium.

Books offer a different kind of experience. This experience has as much to do with the pages and ink as it does with the words themselves. A book has totemic value. Like a photograph or a piece of jewellery, the impression of ink on paper creates a physical connection with its author.

This is why the publishing industry, in response to the advent of digital text, has begun to emphasize the design and production of the books themselves. Most publishers use acid-free ‘archival’ quality paper, and devote more time and energy to the choice of typeface and cover art. Likewise. we authors are being forced to realize that our books had better communicate something more than a web page does, too. We have to understand what it is a book can do, and either fulfil that purpose or quit cutting down trees for no good reason.

Computers and the lnternet may have taught us (or at least reminded us of) the special ability of books to provide a kind of experience you can’t get anywhere else. Books have souls, or so romantics like me tend to think. However pro-technology and pro-future I get, I still have a deep love for printed and bound texts. (Maybe the fact that writing books pays my rent has something to do with it, too.) Neither the Internet nor computers really threaten the book as an art form. As long as authors keep in mind what their books can do that no other medium can, their works will be appreciated.