Yesterday, Times columnist Giles Coren wrote that we should ban physical books because some people have started a fashion of matching book spines to their rooms so that they would look intellectual on video calls. Physical books, he said, are defunct technology and are comparable to audio cassettes. Knowing Coren’s customary iconoclasm, I suspect there is a good measure of jest in these outrageous pronouncements. Yet, he does raise an interesting question, perhaps not one he himself had envisaged: are physical books defunct technology in the way audio cassettes or steam trains are?
That physical books (to call books physical is a fingernail-on-blackboard-scrapingly agonising notion) have been in decline for years and under attack by the new media. That they are not just declining, but dying, and not just dying, but inevitably going extinct, is pure speculation, as there is nothing to suggest that books will end up like audio cassettes or steam locomotives. And the reason is that their technology is basic, not primitive. That some people wish they become extinct is another matter.
Have the compass, the aneroid altimeter or the gyro horizon in an aircraft cockpit, all analogue flight instruments, been made redundant by electronic systems and the glass cockpit? Not really. The two exist side by side, even in the most advanced cockpit systems like the Airbus A380 (now gloriously defunct, by the way). The reason why analogue instruments aren’t defunct is that they are essential. An electric failure and the electronic systems become as useless as they are advanced. On the other hand, there’s not much that can go wrong with a compass or a pressure altimeter, so when everything else fails, the pilot can still rely on them to fly the plane.
I think the metaphor is apt. The book is not like an audio cassette or a steam locomotive. The cassette needs a player and the steam engine needs coal to work. Their use is mediated by other technologies or resources which may or may not be there.
A Kindle, an iPad or any other ebook reader needs power to operate, a suitable software to run, a compatible ebook file to load and is far less resistant than a paperback. For people like Coren, the future of books is technologically advanced, but materially precarious. The physical book may be rudimentary by comparison, but it runs into fewer problems than a digital reading device. And that is exactly what guarantees the book’s (you’ll notice I’ve dropped the word physical) persistence, at least as long as there are human eyes and literate minds to read them. Because nothing else is required, really.