So asked Books: The Last Chapter? – the questioning title of a seventy-minute episode of the BBC 2 series Imagine from December of last year, posed by the program’s human incarnation Alan Yentob. Adding
Will the app take the place of the book?
Anecdotally both my sister and her husband bought Kindles for each other’s Christmas 2011 present and both loved them and both are forty-somethings and if not technophobic then certainly technoskeptic. And well as we know there is no evidence quite as compelling as anecdotal evidence.
Imagine is the BBC’s flagship Art series – I think that means it is expected to aim for a viewing figure at least comparable to a midweek midnight episode of a British Bowling regional meet – Art Programs for Art Programs sake. Imagine was I presume the BBC’s alternative – or complement as we are civil Arts types after all – to ITV’s South Bank Show the brainchild/lovechild of the ubiquitous Melvyn Bragg. Or it was until that show and or Melvyn Bragg were axed with its final broadcast in December 2009. Channel 4 have plenty of shows about classic and contemporary artists but perhaps surprisingly no regular series devoted to it. A gap in the market perhaps. And Channel 5 – be serious!
I am sure I read somewhere that the real name of Imagine’s presenter (and creator/writer/producer) Alan Yentob is Alan Botney but that he reversed his last name to make it sound more exotic! But now wonder whether this might be one of those urban-myths propagated pub-to-pub as afterall if your first name is the modest-sounding Alan I would think you should be going the whole-hog and reversing both names – Nala Yentob certainly sounds exotic – if perhaps to these ears female. Moving on!
The program starts with examples of analog technology – a crackling vinyl copy of David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, a film camera, a land-line telephone, even a letter! before cutting back to Alan Yentob with iPhone in hand – commenting that
Technology expands the mind but shrinks the world
Making things that were once pleasurably different more or less the same
He portends that books are to be next with the profoundest change since Guthenberg as they ‘become consigned to the dustbin of history’!
We then get a potted history of the book. We start before the printing press, before even the physical object of a book, in the form of a scroll. A very long scroll. A second century AD roll of Homer’s The Iliad housed at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. Then we move forward three centuries to a very early example of a physical prototype of the modern day book in the antique form of Eusebius’ Chronicles.
A book very much more convenient to hold and to read than the scroll it was to replace but for all that still only marginally more accessible as this book was literally the ‘one and only’ of its kind. Mass production of copies was not yet upon us. Nor indeed was typography. These original books were all hand-written.
This technology propelling the producing and publishing of ever greater volumes of books in ever shorter periods of time. All the way to the modern day. With books at the digital threshold or precipice. Which is what this program will then take its remaining time expounding on.
Alan Yentob then remarks that
we made books and books made us
It is not yet clear to me how the aunt and uncle of an analogue book is able to shape us where the niece and nephew of the digital book with same content just different form will not be able to make us also. Let us hope this program is more than a curmudgeon’s moaning about the passing of all things.
This program takes some curious detours in its narrative. We are advised that books are 99% water 1% fibre so that like their readers they are organic too!
We then detour further from the reading of books to the smelling of books – yes you read that right! – this might sound like some surreptitious sniffing activity undercover of darkness but no there are people who do this and get paid for doing so. We meet one, librarian Rachael Morrison of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She records her verdicts of the books she samples and smells into a ledger. I write samples but in fact she at one time or another smells each and everyone of the library’s books, each and every three-hundred thousand of them! Olfactory overload!
Her comments are in the same spirit as a professional perfume-smeller or wine-taster. And the prose as purple. There is a ledger column for ‘Olfactory Essence’ – and entries such as ‘burnt Tortilla’ (for The Order of Things by Michel Foucault!) and get this ‘a hug with an elderly relative’ – this ledger it seems is worthy of publication in itself or at least as pretensions of.
She explains this last entry with the quite subjective experience that her parents usually wear and smell of wool (I was not even aware that wool had a smell, I guess I just have a base olfactory system!) and that her grandfather smokes and the way that his smokes sticks to his woollen clothes! For this librarian at least it is not just the physical tactile nature of a book that no digital version can provide but also its very peculiar aroma. During this curious sequence it was never asked why the Museum of Modern Art felt the need to take note of the smells of individual books let alone studiously record them. Was this something particular to MOMA I mused or standard practice of all libraries?!
Alan Yentob himself then mused that there might be a special Smell App for all those book-readers who find themselves seduced to read The Importance of Being Earnest on a Kindle or Nook but nostalgically miss its literal (as oppose to literary!) pungency.
He then alludes to Apps again as
a bland little word like Tweet, Blog and Search that are all quietly changing our world
And by way of ‘is it a book, is it an app’ we move onto The Elements by Theodore Gray. Formerly a glossy coffee-table book it has now become a content-rich multimedia application which since its application incarnation inception eighteen months ago has seen sales of over a quarter-of-a-million copies – nothing to smell here he notes except the ‘sweet smell of success’. Ta da!
And so Imagine – Books: The Next Chapter? As we then meet its publishers (or perhaps producers) Touch Press whose speciality is in touch screen versions of books such as The Elements. The company was established by a former TV producer (Max Whitby) and a scientist (Stephen Wolfram) and by the aforementioned author Theodore Gray among other illustrious founders and we see them in a development meeting with author – and again do the usual descriptions break down here? content producer? Multi-media magician?! – Simon Winchester. They are discussing his latest app Skulls, this one specifically for the iPad. Simon Winchester is there in the meeting or rather he is ‘there’ – being as he is a disembodied video head on a laptop screen – quite fitting of course.
Theodore Gray clearly has no attachment sentimental or otherwise to the printed book – referring to its readers as ‘fetishisers of the printed page’ (well really!) – and adding that
it’s kinda annoying to have to hold the book open!
Speaking as someone who owns and reads books on an iPad I can tell you the paperback, even a hard-back Russian novel, is kinder on the wrists!
All this tiresome physical interaction with the external world. A future of cerebral interaction only where Megamind’s flourish, our craniums expanding as our limbs and torso diminish…
The program then explores the current publishing model in more detail. It is noted that a publisher is focused on getting books on shop bookshelves. The author of books should not be impacted too much by the ‘digital switchover’ but those involved in its physical manufacturer distribution and sale most certainly will be. And indeed already are. Most notably and iconically the book shop.
And not just to paraphrase the You’ve Got Mail universe where the Kathleen Kelly small book shop resists succumbing to the Joe Fox corporate chain of books but where both are at the mercy of the online retail behemoths, most notably Amazon, laying the likes of Borders and many other casualties in their inexorable wake.
Publishing consultant – when there are more consultants than there are professionals they are consulting on you know an industry is in trouble – Mike Shatzkin notes that we are a literal crossroads as five years ago most book sales were in store whereas five years from now most will be online, though he notes that that does not mean online sales are only digital as with Amazon itself hard and paper back sales still match those of their Kindle equivalents. For now.
Most bookstores we are reminded are limited by their physical space, whereas an online store is usually a portal to a global distribution network – all that you could want, all that you could need.
The program then cuts to a meeting with the old guard of the book industry – agents and publishers – as they discuss where they find themselves currently and where they are likely heading within the next decade.
Generation Y gets ifs first mention – also known as the Millennial Generation – those born after Generation X and vaguely dated as being born some time in the last quarter of the last century – as those who consume (I hate that word – not even food should be consumed) near three-quarters of their textual information (another urghh phrase!) online. They note that the three main publishers in ten years time for books are not going to be Penguin, Harper Collins and Faber & Faber but Google, Amazon and Apple.
Concern is then expressed about the discovery of new literature for readers asking that with no face-to-face local presence of book stores are we are all then just cast adrift in a sea of information, where finding books becomes evermore hit and miss?
I am not so sure about that. One of the notable aspects of buying a book on Amazon or other online stores is the review process, more specifically the feedback of previous readers. Their own reviews can provide a more informed and authentic review of a book than the more usual hype of the publishers and their cherry-picked favourable reviews? And the algorithms they employ which suggest that as you recently bought this you may like this are pretty impressive I have to concede no matter how complicated and difficult to understand I like to consider myself!
We then come to the issue of copyright and whether all digital information will become free or should become free – inevitable allusions to Napster are quickly made. If you live in a country with Libraries like Great Britain then to an extent, a tax-subsidized extent, books have always been free. Will this be their digital destiny too? Will there be a Spotify for books for that matter, that allows us to read (stream) books freely for a limited period of time funded by relevant targeted and or irritating advertising?
But will that itself become an academic desire as the very concept of digital ownership fading cost to zero establishes itself? Another way to say that books will become worthless? At least economically. Worthless perhaps but not valueless. The program itself wonders what we will pay for if not content. It proposes this will be context and community. Not entirely convincingly I thought. The suggestion was that an author will be paid to read their work in person or that readers will subscribe for them to discuss their work as they go – I like this idea but not quite buying that an author needs to ‘turn up on the page’ – their writing should be speaking for itself and we the reader will take from it what we will based on our own experiences and beliefs – I am not sure either author or reader would want this extra if you like meta-story on the page.
We now switch sides as it were. Following the digital reading utopia of Theodore Gray we now go to the digital reading dystopia of Gary Shteyngart and his book Super Sad True Love Story referred by Alan Yentob as working on his new novel in upstate New York
far from the tweeting crowd
Another grand comparison was made to EM Forster’s ‘only connect’ plea from his 1910 novel Howard’s End
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
where his plea is ‘only disconnect’. Shteyngart makes great play of being off the digital grid, forced free from the ever widening deepening web. Though disappointingly for me when I googled him I noted he had a Facebook page – well who knows perhaps it was an impostor account – I wonder if I will ever be famous enough to have impostor social media accounts!
He talks of ‘the party in your pocket’ of your smart-phone that is
binging and pinging and clinging and singing and dinging
But not ringing! I noted though he did have a Television – so a selective disengagement or perhaps just a slow weening. Like in turn those who make great play of not having a TV in their homes – so what do you do with your evenings? Oh, you know, we listen to the radio!
He thinks in generalisations which makes him entertaining if not always insightful demurring that ‘we live in a culture where youth is the only thing that is important’.
He is quick to add though that he is not against progress rather its speed. Though at the risk of speaking in generalisations myself I don’t think we can equate all progress as positive or negative. Whatever works. For us.
Next we are introduced to someone from the Institute for the Future of the Book – yes, really! – its co-founder and director Bob Stein and back on the other side of the digital divide. His line was it is the message we should seek to preserve not fuss overmuch over whatever medium happens to be carrying it at any given time, at any given place – the book just a mechanism for the transmission of ideas – so to get hung-up on any one particular format is silly and obstructs us from grasping all the other exciting formats available for its propagation.
The program then puts forward the view that the digital format takes books from the private to the public, from an intimate one-to-one with a paperback to a shared digital experience – we can read a book together and annotate and comment on it together. I guess! Whereas our highlighting of passages in books is for own benefit only (leaving aside striving to impress (upon) others that we may want to lend the book too!) – with a Kindle for example all of our individual highlighting is recorded and stored in Amazon’s database so that we can see the most commonly highlighted phrases of any particular book of interest to us.
We then arrive at McLuhan. Marshall McLuhan. Of the Medium is the Message. Primarily he was referring to Television as against its predecessor of the mass-printed and mass-circulated word but the program suggests that digital technology and the world wide web is even more revolutionary. The program discusses the overload of information. Its overwhelming force and presence. It is commented that in this context the word becomes more emotional and collective where on the paper page it remains more solitary and analytical.
Swiftly we move on – or back – to Generation X and its Canadian author (and visual artist) and proponent Douglas Coupland.
He thinks that McLuhan’s medium is the message is now more prescient with the web than with TV too. He then comments that human attention span is now the length of one Beatle song – dating himself as very much of Gen X by so doing! – and that the Web even perhaps unintentionally panders to this in a way that the analogue world of books and vinyl never could. It is much easier on the web for us to flit about from one object of interest to another – very easy for you dear reader to have left/fled this piece many many words back! He casually throws in that Artificial Intelligence is not ‘ever just beyond the blue horizon’ – well he did not quite say this but I am paraphrasing! – but already with us – the web our collective memory, presence, consciousness. Where does it end and we begin, where do we end and it begins…
Remembering too though that Marshall McLuhan did not approve of these changes – he saw TV as the enemy even in its black and white infancy broadcasting a handful of channels only.
We now find ourselves in San Francisco and to meet an entrepreneur and inventor and who is like an anti-McLuhan. And who believes
that friends are electric
We now hear inevitably Tubeway Army.
And this is Brewster Kahle founder and digital librarian of The Internet Archive – whose mission is to scan every book that has ever existed and make them free to all comers on the web – subject to copyright. Unlike Google who also do this they seek to preserve the original ink too – an analogue back up. Alan Yentob prior to meeting him ponders what book to bring for the man who likely has every book there is to have and decides on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which books burns – as an appropriate choice as it describes a world where books are banned and burned and an underground establishing itself to preserve them as heart-learnt human memories – though I am assuming such a book would already be in such an archive but it makes a good poetic point for the program.
Kahle likes the gifted Ray Bradbury book though comments it is not the burning of books but the proliferation of books and information that is a greater problem. Adding too that we become the books we read – how we invest in them emotionally, intellectually, and how we can then recite them back. He then plays a game of ‘if we could be any book what would it be’. He himself thinks he would be either Euclid’s Elements or Ben Franklin’s Autobiography – so not committing to one then! Alan Yentob thinks he would be Voltaire’s Candide. I am not going to play along though – I cannot be constrained and described by any one book – urgh!
The building use to be a Christian Science temple which I only note as we are shown a part of this Digital Archive where we see clay figures sitting in temple pews. And who are these figures? Everyone who has ever worked at the archive or is still working for five or more years! Imagine that as an incentive to stay with a company! In the very same room are all the digital servers stacked up to the church ceilings each blue bleep a digital download or upload of a book (and audio and video) somewhere in the world. Millions of books ‘up there’, ‘in the cloud’.
What will tomorrow’s cloud be the program then wonders. How much more of us, of humanity will be existing digitally, ethereally in some San Franciscan server?! How much of us will remain on earth in analogue, not digitally stored and cloned in the buzzing ether?
Finally or perhaps by way of a nostalgic post-script we are taken to a cyber-cafe on its premises where alongside drinking your simmering caffeine concoction an analogue book can be printed off of any contained in their vast digital archive – taking as long to print off as your coffee takes to brew. The program ends with Alan Yentob drinking an Expresso while reading a freshly pressed copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Imagine – Books: The Last Chapter? dispenses with a traditional beginning middle and an end. This story rambles. Its tale is inconclusive. The current chapter still being written. There is no The End. Perhaps it is a post-modern tale but perhaps too the same as it ever was. Story never-ending.
- BBC mourns the death of the print book in poorly-reasoned documentary (teleread.com)
- Do You Own That Book? (dansmithsbooks.wordpress.com)