Books: Onward to the Digital Revolution

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Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Models showing off Sharp’s new Galapagos e-book readers at a news conference in Tokyo, September 2010

In his acute, prolix study of contemporary book-publishing practice in the United States and Great Britain, John B. Thompson, a British sociologist, warns against drawing facile inferences from digital technology. He writes:

The fact that ebook sales finally [came] to life…when the sales of traditional printed books were declining is only [a] superficial…sign—we are still a long way from [when] publishers can rely on ebook sales for a substantial or even a significant proportion of their revenue (if indeed they ever will).

But what if digital technology spawns a radically new mode of distribution with few of the present industry’s fixed costs, one that delivers content in both physical and e-book form directly to readers wherever they may be?

How this new mode of production will affect the world’s future as Gutenberg’s press unexpectedly affected the future of Europe is not within the scope of Thompson’s book. Even at this early stage, however, we may safely assume that this historic change, like all human ventures, will not be an unmixed blessing. We may be thrilled to know that Su Tung Po, Mark Twain, and Leo Tolstoy can soon be read in multiple languages by residents of the most remote human settlements but Das Kapital and The Fountainhead are also books and they and their digital successors will now enjoy greater access than before to susceptible readers.

Digital enthusiasts should also consider that as the embrace of other electronic media has widened, the average quality of their product has declined: from Masterpiece Theatre to Jersey Shore, from Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson to Sarah Palin, from Julia Child to Rachael Ray. My own guess is that the digital future in which anyone can become a published writer will separate along the usual two paths, a narrow path toward more multilingual variety, specificity, and higher average quality and a broader path downward toward greater banality and incoherence, while the collective wisdom of the species, the infallible critic, will continue to preserve what is essential and over time discard the rest.

Electronic storage is fragile and interconnected, subject to unpredictable shocks, corruption, and deletions including those instigated by dictatorial regimes and individual lunatics. The two-thousand-year-old codex—printed pages, bound between covers—therefore will not go the way of vinyl and the compact disc but will survive for content worth keeping while the e-book/ e-pad formats and their future iterations will be more and more widely used, particularly for ephemera including soft-core pornography by women,1 the fastest-growing e-book category, and most reference works, such as encyclopedias, atlases, manuals, and so on that are constantly revised and may now be downloaded item by item.

Far more than any other medium, books contain civilizations, the ongoing conversation between present and past. Without this conversation we are lost. But books are also a business, which is the …

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    The New York Times, December 8, 2010.