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.
The story of Don Quixote features countless printed books, and the entire novel can be read as a commentary on and intellectual advancement of that revolutionary technology. Is it any more appropriate to consume Quixote on an e-reader than it is to, say, watch a colorized, 3-D Citizen Kane?