The Book 21.12.09

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It's now 20 years since the death of the printed book. Random Penguin, Britain's last mass-market publisher, was forced to withdraw from print in February 2027. The straw that broke the Penguin's spine was the record-breaking €666 million advance for Dan Brown's 19th book, The Michelangelo Key. Although Brown's book was a popular success, the print edition made a catastrophic loss thanks to the crippling discounts demanded by the supermarkets, Britain's last booksellers, and the publisher joined its competitors in dropping the dead tree and devoting itself to e-books. "This is the end of the book as a mass-produced physical object," reported Bloomberg-Jazeera 
at the time.

The book – a collection of paper sheets covered in writing and bound together along one side – supplanted the scroll as the world's primary information-storage system in the middle of the first millennium. But the information it stored had to be written down by hand, a labour-intensive and costly process that limited the takeup of the technology. This changed in the 1450s with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of movable-type printing. For the first time, a book could be mass-produced from a single template.

Gutenberg's press – often cited as the most influential invention of the second millennium – transformed the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Ideas could be spread with unprecedented rapidity to a far larger number of people than could previously be imagined. From Gutenberg on, the book was not just a symbol of knowledge, it was a symbol of the democratisation of knowledge. Before the printing press, books were locked strongrooms for ideas – after, the locks were broken and the ideas were freed.

This primacy of the printed book as the universal symbol and receptacle of knowledge lasted for more than 500 years. But as soon as the computer became widespread, it was predicted that the screen would come to replace the paper page. And with the rise of the internet, the book's democratic credentials came under attack – the freewheeling pioneers of the web saw old-style publishing as a fortress guarded by blinkered commissioning editors. In contrast, the electronic medium really was open to all.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the printed book was under relentless pressure as the business model of traditional publishing crumbled, bookshops closed and e-readers broke into the mainstream. In 2010, Barnes & Noble released its Nook and it was estimated that Amazon was selling 100,000 Kindles a week. And this was when the only really big player in the game was Sony; Apple, Microsoft and Google had yet to unveil their own e-reading technologies. The production and purchase of physical books fell steadily from that point until the fall of Random Penguin.

Books are still published, of course, in electronic form. In bulk, more words are written and read than ever before – but reading has splintered. There are fewer 100,000-word Great Novels and more pamphlets, serials and short stories. Books have mingled with other media and art forms, incorporating video, music and interactive features. And the idea of the book as a fixed text has disappeared as publishers can now revise and update titles even after they have been sold to readers. This has given rise to new forms of art: in Cory Doctorow's 2039 novel Divergence Point, the ending changes with each successive reading. But it has also been highly controversial, with libel plaintiffs making cuts to published books and politicians revising their biographies to 
fit changing events.

Literary culture did not die with the end of the book – it mutated. But a world was swept away. Dealing with printed objects meant face-to-face meetings in real places. Books could be leant, given, exchanged and sold on in a complex and subtle economy that has largely disappeared – and in all that exchange, no one worried about copyright. People developed personal relationships with individual books that went beyond the text inside. Reading was a haptic, sensory experience in a way that it no longer is. Physical books were mnemonic, they imprinted knowledge through physical experience – remembering a story was to remember first reading it, the weight of the book, the feel of the paper, the look of the page. Books didn't need equipment 
to be read – well, maybe a pair of spectacles. And you could drop them in the bath – they'd be ruined, but readable.

 

 Words

William Wiles

quotes story

The book – a collection of paper sheets covered in writing and bound together along one side – supplanted the scroll as the world's primary information-storage system in the middle of the first millennium

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