Will Paper Books Exist in the Future? Yes, but They’ll Look Different.

The way things look.
May 8 2012 6:30 AM

What Will Become of the Paper Book?

How their design will evolve in the age of the Kindle.

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Other writers go even further, making over the entire paratextual edifice, as Anne Carson does for her recent New Directions publication, Nox. “When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book,” she writes on the back cover. “This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” The book is indeed a facsimile of a handmade original, bound accordion-style and boxed. Verso pages “translate” a Catullus elegy by offering long Latin-English dictionary entries for each word in the poem. Recto pages tell the story of Carson’s relationship to her brother through fragments of lyric essay and primary materials like photographs and letters.

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Nox/New Directions Books.

Carson, a classicist, is well aware of the ways texts evolve or disappear when confronted with changes in modes of transmission. For instance, her Autobiography of Red (1999) purports to complete a once-famous ancient Greek epic of which only a few fragments now survive. She must have been thinking in that long view, embracing the uncertain future of the book, as she assembled this tribute to her brother in a mortal coil of paper—fragile, tactually sensuous, and fully incarnate in its physical form.

Carson’s approach fits into the burgeoning category of “artist’s book”—meaning roughly that the design and paratextual elements of the book are at least as artistically significant as the text.

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William Blake is often regarded as the father of the genre. To separate his text from its setting is to lose an essential dimension of meaning and expression. So his images, the product of an archaic process of engraving and hand-coloring, have survived through centuries of changing print technologies. Though students often first encounter Blake’s poems stripped of their illustrations in paper anthologies, facsimile editions of his major works remain available in bookstores to this day. The tendency to read Blake in facsimile will likely survive the digital transition as well—a testimony to Blake’s unique and successful blending of literary and visual arts.

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Plate with The Tyger poem by William Blake via Wikimedia Commons.

Along the same lines, a first-edition Blake boasts an aura equal to that of a great painting or sculpture. This opens another possibility for the paper book in the digital age: As paper books lose their use value and become collector’s objects, writers gain access to the speculative art market. If Blake were alive today, he would find an art market primed and ready to pay vast sums for limited edition copies produced in his studio. This could become an enticing alternative for art- and prestige-oriented writers squeezed by a declining publishing industry.

Andrew Hoyem’s San Francisco-based Arion Press can be thought of as a sort of laboratory for fine-art approaches to publishing literature. Arion’s catalog features a 50-pound Monotype folio Bible; an elegant Moby Dick with commissioned wood engravings; a radical, two-dimensional Flatland that folds out to form a 30-foot plane of text; and a Pale Fire with John Shade’s meta-fictional poem printed on index cards in a separate volume.

A common Arion approach is to pair a hand-setting of a text with new work by a contemporary artist. Pictured below are Kiki Smith’s illustrations of “I Love My Love” by the early Beat poet Helen Adam. Only 101 copies were printed.

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I Love My Love/Arion Press.

Many fine presses around the country put out similarly handcrafted products, often featuring new fiction or poetry. Absent the contributions of well-known artists like Smith, these publications are often labors of love, driven more by an ascendant creative-class interest in pre-digital technologies than any existing profit model. However, as mass-market paperbacks give way to e-books, fine press editions seem poised to appeal to the nostalgic consumer of paper books.

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Photograph by Lorika13 via Flickr.

Who will buy these new, well-made paper books? One likely result of the transition to e-books is that paper book culture will move further out of reach for those without disposable income. Debt-ridden college students, underemployed autodidacts, and the everyday mass of bargain-hunters will find better deals on the digital side of the divide. (Netflix for books, anyone?)

As paper books become more unusual, some will continue to buy them as collectors’ items, others for the superior sensory experience they afford. There’s reason to think this is happening already: Carl Jung’s Red Book, a facsimile edition featuring hand-painted text and illustrations, sold well in America in 2010 despite its $195 price tag. When readers believe that a book is special in itself, as an object, they can be persuaded to pay more.

Bookshelves will survive in the homes of serious digital-age readers, but their contents will be much more judiciously curated. The next generation of paper books will likely rival the art hanging beside them on the walls for beauty, expense, and “aura”—for better or for worse.

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