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The future of books

This article appears in the issue April 2014 [Volume 23, Issue 4]

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Twice in the past two weeks I've felt compelled to say that I think books have no future, first to a famous and deep scholar of the history of books, and then to a room full of librarians. Taking that position brought me no joy. I just didn't see an alternative.

The book historian is no technophobe. When he writes about books and libraries, he does so with subtlety and suppleness, freely acknowledging that he does most of his research online. We were at an after-talk wine and cheese gathering, and he asserted with great authority that university libraries will remain full of books. "I can prove it to you," he said. "I've been an historian for several decades, and all of my colleagues—every one of them—depends on being physically in front of books." They all use the Internet, too, but when they want to explore something in depth, they go to their library. (This fellow is from a university that has a great library.)

Why? Because of the serendipity libraries bring, and because there is no faster way to tell if a book is going to be helpful than by skimming its pages. You can't do that online.

To the first point, I wanted to reply that the Net provides far better ways to encounter serendipity: better both because the domain of the serendipitous is exponentially more extensive. and because the encounters do not depend on the primary sort order that determined which books are next to which on a shelf.

There is a point subsidiary to this that I think he was assuming: There's tremendous value in the curating done by librarians. Undeniably true. Librarians have had to become expert curators because there is so little space on shelves relative to the number of published works (not to mention the unpublished and posted works). Now that we have a super-abundance of works, we need to continuously get better at filtering, both algorithmically and socially. Because this is a requirement, I assume we'll meet it. Progress in filtering has been stupendous so far. But even if we falter, I doubt that libraries will be our model of curation, because even though librarians are awesome curators, handmade curation doesn't scale.

To the second point I wanted to reply: But when we have all the books digitized, then do you think you and your colleagues will still roam the library stacks? But I didn't ask because he was being so assertive about his beliefs that I backed away quietly out of a mix of respect and cowardice.

The librarians were easier to talk with. They were primarily from K-12 schools and defended books as an antidote to the "snacking" the Internet encourages among students. Books model the slow, careful development of an idea. Students need that, they said, if they are going to develop an ability to understand their world.

I don't disagree. But I also don't trust my valuing of long-form thinking because, well, I'm old. It's entirely possible that we'll continue to write long-form books well after we've stopped publishing them on paper. Long-form writing may be less about the truth than about providing an art form that brings us pleasure.

That's now how our culture has taken long-form writing, We've seen it as a pinnacle of human knowledge, revealing the truth about the world. But I no longer believe it's a long-form world. It's chaotic, emergent, subject to pivot on trifles, multi-threaded and unpredictable. Events like the Civil War or the mortgage crash of 2008 are not stories that can be told even by the ablest of historians. They resolve ultimately into millions of smaller stories, each of which reaches out into a network of events and relations that cannot be known or tracked. It may be that the attempt to express a complex event in even a series of long-form novels will come to make as much sense as trying to tell the "story" of the attendees of the Super Bowl. There is no story, except that most of them like watching football games.

So, physical books may survive beyond the occasional specialist use of them. And long-form writing may survive because we like believing that the chaos of the world resolves into paths that connect beginnings with their ends. Maybe. But in truth I don't think so. I just can't talk myself into believing that once we've digitized the contents of libraries, physical books will remain the primary objects even for researchers, or that long-form will continue to have the sheen of God's truth.

Although I'm likely wrong.

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