I was planning a post about things only physical books can do. Not that I wanted to contribute to the debate about whether books or ebooks are the future. I was going to write something about cases when a book would be appropriate, but an ebook wouldn’t, such as offering someone the gift of a book – but not an e-reader.
Meanwhile, the New Yorker published a brilliant piece on how books refuse to die, focusing on Leah Price’s recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading. I didn’t read the book, but the article alerted me to an important point: perhaps we are making the same mistake with books that we’ve made with many other things, like art and architecture: taking them out of their soil and setting them up in a museum of memories.
The internet is replete with textual icons of book nostalgia. I number myself among the guilty. Once we set up books against e-readers, reading the page against surfing the web, we start laying the foundation of a mythology of the book. And some mythologies are deleterious. It would be like removing Caravaggio’s Conversion on the way to Damascus from the Cerasi Chapel in Rome and exhibiting it permanently in some museum. In that moment, the painting loses its context, a part of its DNA, and becomes a stranger unto itself. We did and are doing that to much of our art, and we deal similarly with our architectural heritage.
Books are no different. They exist to create an experience, transmit, transform, transcend. Unrolling a papyrus may have produced an effect that an ancient reader aware of the emerging codex (bound book) in the first centuries AD wanted to preserve in the face of the viral novelty. If 15th-century scribes had been organised in a modern trade union, they would have gone on strike against printers. Gutenberg would have had to worry about much more than operations. Nothing has changed.
Books evolved, reading evolved, too. They still do, and we through them and often because of them. It is cultural presumption disguised as piety to proclaim the evolutionary end of the book as though there’s nothing left to do now but to fight for its survival. The story moves on in another volume, new forms, new ways are yet to be imagined. Read, surf and be creative.