Is Paper Dying?
From a single book we can reverse engineer civilisations and societies; its flammable, rippable, fragile imperfection, its fleeting imprint on the pulp of our culture; its rain-soaked, margin scribbled, dog-eared, torn-cornered, back-broken, sun-faded, damp-speckled, dotted, stained, worn, bleached, browned, missing-leafed, apple-dappled, down at heal, six-penny penguin, third-editioned, back of the store remaindered, wedged down the sofa, chewed by the dog, slept on by cats, lent to a friend, lost in a box, sitting in the attic, left behind in old house, belonged to my grandfather, found in a junkshop, this old thing, that one I’d forgotten, had it since a boy, never read it yet, five minutes before lights out, cheers me up, don’t put it down, give it to a girl, boyfriend left it here, found-in-a-jacket-pocket, bus-ticket-for-a-bookmark, schoolboy-doodled, spat through biros, bubble-troubled, had it for years but only just started, can I have it when you’re finished, noted in the margin, Awarded for Excellence (1963), found, lost, torn, read it in a hostel in Chicago, singed at the edges, smelling of mold, beaten up, handed down, bound, dropped, hidden and hoped for splendor is the record not just of our achievements but the reality of them and a reminder of our own fleeting, disposable natures and fleshy reality.
A few years ago I was talking to my friend the Peruvian poet and intellectual Luiz La Hoz. It was the sort of conversation that should only take place at three in the morning surrounded by the detritus of the night before. Luis’s English is almost as bad as my Spanish but we both spoke fluent Pisco; our subject was paper. In our imagining we were the last redoubt of literacy against the firemen of barbarism. Him, a sort of paperback Josey Wales; me, his earnest, if niaive companion. He mimed lifting an open volume to his face then, in a voice made more gravelly than usual by countless cigarettes, “The smell. The smell of the words and the poetry; only paper.”
We returned to the important business of drinking ourselves sober in time for breakfast, but the scene has stayed with me and turned into something of an obsession. There is no shortage of people – writers and readers – who think that a Kindle Kerourac or Ibsen Ibook is akin to Bach on the Kazoo but we still seem to be losing the argument. Publishers like ebooks because they’re cheap, and an increasingly significant number of readers seem to have bought the lie that being able to take 3,000 books on holiday is somehow useful. A worrying number of would-be writers seem to like them because they do away with the need of persuading at least one human being that your book is worth reading.
There is a romance to physical books. To take Faber literally for a moment, that books are porous – a John Grisham soaks up sun tan lotion like strained metaphors and E. L. James must have absorbed a eurolake of Frascati in the last year or so. They record their owners as much as their authors in a way that a screen can never hope to. It’s also hard to imagine that, to finish Faber’s tirade to Montag, when he said “The more pores, the more truthfully recoded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are”, he would have settled for reducing the font size.
There is a texture and sound to paper – the thhllrrp of the turning page – and the heartbeat from the bottom right of ‘held’ to the top left of ‘the dagger’, that is hotwired into the process of reading in a way that cannot be manufactured with all of the widgetry that gimmicktastic technology can supply.
For nearly 2,000 years, since Ts’ai Lun handed over the first sheet of foolscap to his imperial boss, paper has recorded the dreams, hopes, fears and follies of humanity. It has faithfully absorbed the human experience and stuck with us as we matured as a species. Only the dog has been more faithful in human endeavor; replacing parchment with plastic is like swapping a Labrador for an Ewok – cute for about five minutes but no sense of loyalty. We have grown up with paper and yet, on the brink of evolutionary adulthood, we’re risking classing it with childish things.
It would be easy to say “Why worry”, the demise of the book has been predicted so many times, it’s barely worth reiterating. The radio and the record have both been seen off, bested and, themselves, replaced by newer technologies; television’s questionable lures served, ultimately, as nothing more than a handy marketing trick for the papery, printed original. And yet there is a difference with the ebook – it can compete with hardcopy because, to paraphrase Clive James, ‘the pictures are just as good’.
It appears to have all of the functionality of the paper book and an e-reader has greater utility. This fact – other than demonstrating why economists should never be allowed to run anything – misses the point. Contrary to popular belief, the computer, the Internet and all of the wizardry, impressive though it is, that surrounds them may still prove to be just for Christmas. We are not yet masters of all we can convey. Hi-tech is a rich man’s toy, requiring software, oil-based plastics, a developed market economy, a technocratic class and other manifestations of modernity. For the classic original, all you need to do is take some vegetable matter, chew it up, spit it out, jump on it, dry it under a post-apoclyptic sun and then pen the great American novel with a rollerball that, thankfully, survived the collapse of Western civilization.
Like all of the cultures that crumbled before us, we buy the lie that this particular paradigm is set for eternity; yet Suns set on all Empires as frequently and more so than cultures lose technologies. When China ruled the waves in the early 1400s it would have seemed laughable that the great civilization would become shore-bound again until they were colonized by European craft centuries later. The Samurai saw off the rifle in two generations, only to be seen again, form the wrong end, in the hands of others.
However, there is no need as such to imagine the loss of electrical power or freely available oil to explain why the ebook is the most tenuous of storylines. Much to the annoyance of publishers throughout history, the single greatest accomplishment of the modern book, its justification par excellence as the crowning glory of two millennia as the greatest technogical creation of the most intelligent species this planet has ever seen, is that you can leave it at a bus stop in Aberfeldy. Most significantly, you can leave it there and not really be bothered to go back for it. With any luck, and no disrespect to the good folk of the town, someone will nick it.
They may even read it. They won’t need anything to do so except literacy and a pleasingly human curiosity to do so. Chances are the teenager who picks it up on her way to break up with a drummer in a band that one day, to her enduring regret, really will be big, won’t give a second’s thought to returning the book but may, quite probably, find it again twenty years later and think fondly of the severity of her youthful ideals as she idly turns the pages.
It seems improbable that the same could be said for a misplaced laptop or whichever gizmo is currently being developed by some semi-literate cybergoth in the Santa Clara Valley.
The physical book is more than just a delivery system for words. Sure enough, it has its weakness in that regard – books may be zoos for words but, when consulted, a majority of syllables said that they preferred them to the vivisection table of the Internet. However, just like Yambo our memories are made of paper.
Somehow it’s difficult to imagine stumbling across a Dual-core 1.2 GHz TI OMAP4 4460, and wondering for a Spring morning’s moment who had left it there or flicking through the code of one of the great programmers of a forgotten age and marveling at their phrases dressed up in jaded Sunday best.
Some – publishing executives mostly – have suggested that the arrival of digital books is the fourth great shock for literacy; the printing press, the novel and the paperback being the first three. They are ignoring the common theme of the previous changes, they increased the accessibility of our shared stories by reducing their price and increasing the distribution. The fact that the delivery system and the contents were the same thing is the very reason for their success and our enduring obsession with them. Unless we are to make the required shift to a ‘Free Mac with every Jane Austen novel’ world, then it is difficult to see how e-publishing moves us any further down that road.