Books survive the orgasm of closure


Bookshelf, Flickr image by Phil More, cropped to 300 by 300 For the time being, the idea that the book is dead seems to be in remission. Two decades have passed since we found ourselves suddenly living in an age of endings — the end of history, the death of God, the end of ideology, the demise of the novel, the bonfire of the vanities, the death of the book, and so on.

As if in agreement with these proposed finalities, seemingly impregnable communist regimes toppled. The Berlin wall, both as symbol and physical presence, came crashing down. And then not only the years but also the century and the whole bloody millennium ended.

It was an orgasm of closure, to use the word that then invaded the language like a virus.

With unseemly haste the death of the book was assumed to be part of this cascade of conclusion. The book was and remains self-evidently not dead. People are crowding bookshops. Week by week books are reviewed, cited, paraphrased, recommended, criticised, attacked, blamed for this, rewarded for that, compared here, convicted there, exonerated somewhere else.

Readers have no sense that they are dealing in moribund goods. They do not catch the whiff of lexicological death as they turn a page. Proponents of book death continue to forecast doom, but at the moment the book is down at the gym doing circuits and looking fit.

If the book does have a cast-iron future appointment on boot hill, what is to be its replacement? Answer: the e-book — for the moment on screen, but that will change.

Few people have read or are inclined to read whole books on screen. So where does the perfectly acceptable enthusiasm for the e-book come from? Not from people whose experience of e-book reading has convinced them of its superiority, because there are so far very few such people. And not from those who are hanging out to change over to e-books as soon as they can. No such anticipatory mood seems to exist.

The enthusiasm for the e-book and all its advantages comes from people who are already enthusiasts for something larger than the e-book, from people who have an umbrella enthusiasm under which e-publishing takes its place as only one of many marvels. This enthusiasm is for the technology itself.

Just as it was not mainly cricket lovers who espoused the technology that now suffuses the venerable game, so it has not been mainly book lovers and readers who have championed the e-book. E-book enthusiasts are overwhelmingly computer buffs, not bookworms. They are convinced that the existence of highly sophisticated technology means it must be used and must and inevitably will supplant modes that do not use it.

Their assumption is that all change is progress and that all progress is of its nature not so much a good thing (which it probably is) as an exclusively good thing. But why should the very smart idea known as the e-book condemn the traditional book to death? They are two very different species.

The traditional published book, let's call it the p-book, represents a fusion of form and content. Words on serially arranged pages between covers and attached to a spine make a package: the book. Reference to the book can mean anything from that familiar physical object through to the imaginative complexities of Crime and Punishment or Pride and Prejudice.

E-book, however, refers to a file in which is contained 'the Work' (to use the standard contractual term). The form is technological software and hardware and is profoundly and thoroughly separated from the content. And that content can only be reached by a relatively sophisticated encounter with the form that contains it. If you don't happen to own or understand the technological form, the content is denied you.

There remain large numbers of readers for whom the book will continue to exercise a powerful atavistic attraction. And not merely atavistic: the book has brilliant mobility. It can be carried, pocketed, lent or borrowed. It can be read on trams, trains and beaches, in bed, at the cricket, covertly in church, easefully on the dunny.

And in offering these many desirable traits, it also offers a relationship. The complex intellectual, emotional and psychological relationship of the individual reader to that fused package of form and content constitutes a mix which even the most nimble technology cannot either match or counterfeit.

As with cricket, so with the book: there will always come that point where technology, for all its versatility, will run up against the infinite, maddening and mysterious workings of the human psyche, when even a plea to a third umpire will do nothing to unravel the mystery. At that point the book, like the batsman, will be given the benefit of the doubt and will live on to build a bigger innings.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.

Topic tags: brian matthews, end of history, death of God, end of ideology, death of the book



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Existing comments

No comments yet? Surely I'm not the only person to have read Brian's article so far. And here's me, one of those who much prefer Eureka Street in p-form so I can read it as/when/where I choose.

Ah, the technology of being able to respond immediately at the bottom of the page. The PDF version is not quite there yet. Another of life's mixed blessings.
Kim Miller | 21 August 2008

Well I love books - and it's the content that matters to me (fiction or non-fiction) not the medium. P-books are great and I have a lot of them. But when I'm travelling or living in a non-English speaking country for a few months e-books on a versatile reading device would also be great. I am devastated that we can't get the Amazon Kindle here yet because of copyright/publishing issues. It would be fabulous to have options.
Lee | 26 August 2008

More than 20 years ago, I heard a well known book retailer speaking about downloading books onto credit card size gizmos [from the phone booth? He also had a large ebook reader. Thankfully, from the point of view of business, and sheer pleasure, no one I know has admitted to owning an ebook.
Peter | 04 November 2008


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