The New Age of the Book

Marshall McLuhan’s future has not happened. The Web, yes; global immersion in television, certainly; media and messages everywhere, of course. But the electronic age did not drive the printed word into extinction, as McLuhan prophesied in 1962. His vision of a new mental universe held together by post-printing technology now looks dated. If it fired imaginations thirty years ago, it does not provide a map for the millennium that we are about to enter. The “Gutenberg galaxy” still exists, and “typographic man” is still reading his way around it.

Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex in the third or fourth century AD, it has proven to be a marvelous machine—great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand. And its handiness has made it the basic tool of learning for thousands of years, even before the library of Alexandria was founded early in the fourth century BC.

Why then do we continue to hear prophecies about the death of the book? Not because McLuhan was right but because movable type can’t move fast enough to keep up with events. Insofar as the Monica Lewinsky affair was a media event, it took place largely on the Internet, first through the “scoop” of Matt Drudge, which made it news before it reached the newspapers, then through the publication of the Starr Report on government websites, which recorded six million hits within twenty-four hours.

In the giddiness that followed, Americans learned that all sorts of electronic books were being developed. Most of these “e-books” contain texts that are downloaded from on-line booksellers and then can be projected onto a screen, one page at a time. JSTOR, a project developed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has made vast runs of scholarly periodicals available on line and purchasable at low prices by libraries, some of which could not afford the originals. The New York Public Library dispenses so much information electronically to readers all over the world that it reports ten million hits on its computer system each month as opposed to 50,000 books dispensed in its reading room at 42nd Street. Everything, it seems, is being digitized, and every digit hyperlinked to all the others. If the future brings newspapers without news, journals without pages, and libraries without walls, what will become of the traditional book? Will electronic publishing wipe it out?

We have heard that prophecy repeated ever since the first e-book, a clunking monstrosity known as Memex, was designed in 1945. By now, the conventional book has been pronounced dead so often that we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it seems in excellent health. Sales of some books are…

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