The change has come more slowly to books than it came to music or to business correspondence, but by now it feels inevitable. The digital era is upon us. The Twilights and Freedoms of 2025 will be consumed primarily as e-books. In many ways, this is good news. Books will become cheaper and more easily accessible. Hypertext, embedded video, and other undreamt-of technologies will give rise to new poetic, rhetorical, and narrative possibilities. But a literary culture that has defined itself through paper books for centuries will surely feel the loss as they pass away.
In the past several years, we’ve all heard readers mourn the passing of the printed word. The elegy is familiar: I crave the smell of a well-worn book, the weight of it in my hands; all of my favorite books I discovered through loans from a friend, that minor but still-significant ritual of trust; I need to see it on my shelf after I’ve read it (and I don’t mind if others see it too); and what is a classic if not a book where I’m forced to rediscover my own embarrassing college-age marginalia?
Luddites can take comfort in the persistence of vinyl records, postcards, and photographic film. The paper book will likewise survive, but its place in the culture will change significantly. As it loses its traditional value as an efficient vessel for text, the paper book’s other qualities—from its role in literary history to its inimitable design possibilities to its potential for physical beauty—will take on more importance. The future is yet to be written, but a few possibilities for the fate of the paper book are already on display on bookshelves near you.
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We’re warned from an early age not to be taken in by the sensuous aspects of a paper book’s design, such as its cover. Yet the visual effect of a well-made book, even an inexpensive paperback, unquestionably shapes our interpretation and appreciation of the text.
Consider this Penguin UK collection of essays by the German critic Walter Benjamin. The front cover comments on the book’s status as a manufactured object. This is in harmony with Benjamin’s text: “[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”
Now, as we move into the digital age, the well-made copy has come to occupy a familiar, almost nostalgic middle ground between the aura of an original and the ghostly quality of a computer file. A mass-produced paper book, though bulkier and more expensive, may continue to be more desirable because it carries with it this material presence. And presence means something—or it can, at least, in the hands of a good book designer.
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The mechanical reproduction of literary texts is a very old story—more than 500 years old. Printed books were an early experiment in the mass production of art. Out of that successful venture, among other literary advances, the novel was born. Writers like Cervantes recognized and realized the potential of the printed book, that ingenious device for delivering stories and ideas to an idle provincial reader.
This question points to a second possible mode of survival for the paper book in the digital age. Purists will argue that some important texts ought to be read in their original form. This may be especially convincing when it comes to the novel, a literary form so bound up in the history of the printed book—and, by many accounts, well past its golden age as the digital transition begins.
Of course, advances in book technology often add to texts as much as they take away. For example, innovations in wood engraving led to Gustav Doré’s famous 1863 illustrations of Quixote.
When we speak of illustrations, book covers, typesetting, and other features specific to a given print edition, we’re analyzing what the French theorist Gérard Genette calls “paratexts.” In Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, he writes, “[A]lthough we do not always know whether these productions are to be regarded as belonging to the text, in any case they surround and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book.”
As e-books overhaul and re-present many long-standing paratextual categories, we trade off layers of established meaning. The typescript page shown here, from James Joyce’s Ulysses, is a famous example of a paratext with clear authorial intent. Joyce asked the printer to enlarge the final, redundant period at the end of the “Ithaca” chapter. On a Kindle, the reader can adjust the font size herself.
Joyce wanted his free-floating period to be especially visible because it meant more than the average punctuation mark—it gave a full stop to the long “sentence” that was Ulysses. Recently, several young writers have further cultivated paratextual elements like punctuation, typesetting, and binding as arenas of authorial expression. Dave Eggers prints body text on the cover of his book; Mark Z. Danielewski uses colored, upside-down, and Braille fonts; Salvador Plascencia crosses out words and blacks over whole columns of text. Laurence Sterne’s 1759 novel Tristram Shandy, with its blank, black, and marbled pages, stands as an early precedent for these sorts of explorations.
Tree of Codes, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2010 novel-by-erasure, is one example of a paratextually audacious paper book that would lose much in translation to an e-book. Foer picked through the pages of his favorite novel (Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles), pulling out words to create a new narrative composed entirely from Schulz’s raw material. Foer’s originality can be questioned (Tom Phillips’ A Humument tried the same trick 40 years ago), and his finished product arguably fails to bridge the divide between conceptual art and literature, but the design work is unimpeachable. Substantial portions of each page are die cut, creating evocative, three-dimensional wells of negative space. Schulz was killed in the Holocaust at the age of 50 with several good works likely left in him. Foer’s tribute gives paratextual emphasis to this loss.
Unlike Cervantes, Joyce, and Schulz, living writers can raise objections when their work is adulterated to fit new forms of literary consumption. For example, Salvador Plascencia, author of the 2005 McSweeney's novel The People of Paper, has been vocal in asking that readers enjoy his book in printed form and not on Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other e-readers. He points to the title of his novel by way of an explanation. “Readers would be missing an essential material metaphor if they were on a pixel reader,” he says.
“That, and I don't want hapless readers enlarging my fonts and thinking that the book lives in this androgynous space that is neither recto nor verso,” Plascencia adds. “The book is sexed: on your left you have a verso, in the middle your gutter, and to the right your recto. E-readers are neutering and spaying our sexy novels.” In The People of Paper, for example, different storylines play out in verso and recto, respectively, with odd-numbered pages following one set of characters and even-numbered pages another.
This is one future for the paper book in the age of digital proliferation—a select group of design-conscious authors will continue to address their creations specifically to the printed medium. Their themes, like Plascencia’s and Foer’s, will likely revolve around the history and practice of writing books, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary—one of literature’s greatest themes has always been itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a whole class of paper books we haven’t discussed yet—the paratextually unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves. These are headed for the same place most manufactured objects go eventually—the scrapheap.
In its own way, even the well-made paper book may someday reach a similar fate. The art market may have deep pockets, but historically it hasn’t been very hospitable to literature. As far as the “artist’s book” is concerned, the first term in the phrase has tended to take precedence, in the past century at least. A lover of literature can’t help feeling that—as the conventions of the paper book have come under the interrogation of the visual arts—poetry, rhetoric, narrative, and meaning have often suffered.
German artist Dieter Roth’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Work in 20 Volumes (1974) is an ominous example. Roth ground up the philosopher’s complete works and used them as a substitute for meat in a recipe for homemade sausage. The result is literaturwurst—a final possible future for the paper book in the age of digital proliferation.
Don’t forget to read about the key and the other objects featured in our series on everyday design.