As the Borders bookstore chain moves ahead with plans to go out of business, its demise has raised anew questions about long-term prospects for the traditional printed book. But the discussion need not resort back to the tired one that sets e-books against the paper kind.
In my occasional work as a book reviewer, even before the Borders announcement, I’ve become accustomed to thinking a lot about the future of books. On many nights, in fact, I sit under my reading lamp and open books that, in the strictest sense, don’t yet exist.
Publishers often send me advance reader copies of titles that won’t be finished and sent to bookstores until many weeks later. The idea is to give critics and other industry insiders a glimpse of what’s coming up, possibly creating some buzz before a book’s official release date.
Advance reader copies are almost uniformly utilitarian objects, often grimly so. Instead of the nice binding that holds together a typical book, reader copies are often bound in plain stock that has all the visual appeal of a brown paper bag. There is frequently no cover art, so the only things telling you hello are the title and author spelled out in dryly sensible type, like the opening lines of a master’s thesis.
What you get with an advance reader copy is the script for a book, but something clearly short of the book itself. Granted, the author’s words are there before you – and that would seem to be the most important ingredient in a work of literature.
Ideal book is more than a lump of text
But to live routinely with advance reader copies, as I do, is to be reminded that an ideal book is more than a mere lump of text. It’s also a sublime alchemy of language and art, craftsmanship, and physical substance.
Such realities invite obvious comparisons between the traditional book and its younger rival, the e-book. I’m not against electronic books; as an author, I favor any format that holds the promise of getting my work to more readers. We should also avoid the false choice of either traditional books that are delights to the senses or e-books that are bland containers of data.
Technology promises to give e-book publishers plenty of tools to develop their own aesthetic – a set of qualities that can, collectively, nurture the e-book into a striking new art form. That kind of ambition must be at the heart of publishing, regardless of format.
And such innovation can complement traditional books without fully replacing them, since the intricate chemistry of paper, pictures, and story within a conventional book is, in the ultimate sense, irreplaceable.
Or so I learned a couple of years ago after writing a small book about John James Audubon. Quite often, at readings or lectures or signings, readers would approach me to voice their opinions not only on the message of my book, but its design: the impact of its artwork, the tactile sensation of its embossed end papers, the conception of its jacket art.
Those comments came frequently enough to suggest an active constituency for the culture of paper books, even in age of electronic text.
Which is why, when I look into the future under my reading lamp, I continue to see the presence of the traditional book.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”