When will the printed book die? Some think that its replacement by electronic media is imminent and promote this view using arguments that are both romantic and utopic: a new society where massive amounts of information can be accessed instantaneously and free, and with reduced environmental damage because of a decrease in the use of paper.
Although neither argument can stand serious analysis, there is no question that the electronic book is rapidly gaining in popularity. Most major “brick and mortar” bookstores have gone out of business, and today Amazon sells more electronic books than printed ones. There is also an explosion of blogs related to every imaginable (and unimaginable) topic, and there is no question that electronic media have some advantages over certain printed media such as newspapers and magazines.
On the other side of the argument are scholars of the stature of Umberto Eco, the famous author of “The Name of the Rose” and Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna, who recently published a dialogue with Jean-Claude Carrière, a French dramaturge who worked with Buñuel on several films including the 1977 “that Obscure Object of Desire.” In other words, two of the most important intellectuals of our time.
In this dialogue entitled “This is not the end of the book,” Eco and Carrière explore the history of the printed book and conclude that it will never die. The first strong argument is Eco’s: “The printed book is like a spoon; once invented, it cannot be improved.” In addition to its portability and ease of use, the printed book possess the attribute of permanency, something lacking in digital technologies. A simple example is provided by the first ever book produced using a printing press (the Gutenberg Bible of 1453) which still conserves its initial sharpness and intensity, as if it was printed yesterday. Can we say the same of manuscripts written in formats such as the once popular “Word Perfect 4.2” of the 1980s, manuscripts that today cannot be read by most users? Will you be able to access your digital library in a decade from now? Can you still watch your old VHS tapes?
According to these authors, even more important than permanency is the attribute of quality. The existence of professional editors ensure that printed books pass through numerous reviews, including facts and grammar checking. Who vouches for the accuracy and style of today’s massive digital media? And what are the implications for the future of our languages?
The most solid argument, however, is that the printed book always comes with its own habitat: the library, a sanctuary of knowledge, intelligence, and reflection. There is no doubt that nothing can replace our ability to sit down on a comfortable couch to read a printed book, enjoying each page one at a time. The digital book is like fast food, mass produced and for quick consumption. The printed book, on the other hand, is like a banquet with numerous courses to be enjoyed over time and with great serenity, a pinnacle of civilization. The printed book will never die.
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Photograph courtesy of the British Library