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Losing the book as a symbol

Publishing needs to build new symbols for the digital age

Transitioning the publishing industry to digital technologies involves lifting the words out of printed pages, and pouring them into the amorphous containers we call ebooks. Books are no longer the tangible, brick-shaped presence they were: they must, instead, be stretched and poured into and onto any device fit for reading, from the laptop to the Kindle to the phone.

In fact, “the book” no longer designates the physical expression of the text, but the text itself, a self-contained bundle of information, whose structure and boundaries have been jointly defined by the author and the publisher. Picking up a book where you left it no longer involves picking up the same object, but rather the same text on whatever device happens to be at hand.

This convenience comes at the cost of a grave loss: that of the book as a symbol, as an artifact of learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude. While this loss may seem trivial, a simple matter of changing times and customs, the symbols we are losing permeate society and have long been shaping the fortunes of publishing, even before the printing press made it into an industry.

A quick survey of Western Art is all one needs to appreciate the symbolic value of books in portraiture, whether that book is a prayer book, Diderot’s Encyclopaedia or, as in Edward Hopper’s work, a nondescript pad of forbidding blankness. Even clip-art banks of the nineties included large collections of implausibly geometrical tomes in nauseating colours. In pictorial representations, a book stands for a lifestyle, an attitude, a calling.

The talismanic value of books extends beyond the frame, as evidenced by our everyday vocabulary, photo galleries of beautiful libraries and our general tendency to keep fetishising the book in contemporary home decor. After decades of encasing “fine books” in glass-fronted cabinets, it could be argued that, for a sizable part of society, the book is first and foremost a symbol of status and a reassuring promise of humanity.

By losing the book as a physical artifact, we lose a way to encapsulate and convey such meaning. A portrait of a man with his iPhone may evoke digital literacy or modernity, but it hardly conveys knowledge. Nor do we pile up Kindle Fires on our occasional tables to subtly hint at our learned civility.

I have no doubt that we, as a society, will promote newer symbols to highlight and fetishise what is important to us, including the evergreen qualities of intellectual superiority.

The publishing industry, however, has lost much of its symbolic currency over the past decade. Like a successful brand suddenly losing rights to its logo and trade dress, it finds itself visually nude, providing a needed product still, but deprived of the strong emotional triggers that make up much of its strength. If it wants to retain its place as the stronghold of learning, it must build such symbols anew, symbols adapted to the digital age.

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Comments: 11

  1. I don’t think we will lose books, they may evolve into a genre reserved exclusively for ‘picture’ books – photography, fashion, architecture, landscaping in short any of the most expensive books that a fortune to publish and usually require a known aurthor will remain as books I think – for coffee tables, to share – they simply don’t have the same ‘mana’ on a screen I believe.

    • The transition of the book from necessity to art form (or high-end object) is indeed a very real possibility. Much like you, I do not believe we will ever loose books entirely: objects and artefacts tend to find niches to live in, even past their commercial prime. The transition would be an interesting one, though, as it would still fundamentally change how we, and publishers, need to think about the printed book.

  2. The argument presented here seems entirely wrong-headed to me. First, the print “versus” digital argument is a false one. The growth of digital distribution does not end the value or use of print. If anything, it is now easier than ever to create artifacts, if in fact those artifacts are desired.

    Second, there may be more value in focusing time and attention on books that have (to borrow the phrase again) earned the right to be objects. Rather than put great works and genre fiction on the same table and say, “Books!”, we can choose to make physical those works that we want to keep in front of us.

    Finally, the argument that format equals brand is demonstrably untrue. The physical form may at some point have held sway, but we’re past that. Brand is determined by an ability to meet the expectations and demands of readers. If it takes a physical object, deliver it. But the physical object is not the brand; it’s just an object.

    Containers limit us. I don’t see that as a reason to eliminate them, but it does argue that we don’t limit ourselves to what is contained within them.

    • I quite agree with you that the transition to digital books does not necessarily mean the end of print. However, and, in my humble view, unfortunately, this is the direction the industry appears to be taking. Many publishers (and readers) are indeed pushing for the end of the print book, sometimes for very good reasons indeed, and one cannot entirely dismiss the idea that space taken by digital distribution will expand at the expense of more traditional methods.

      What you propose and describe is extremely interesting: we are now, indeed, in a position to select which artefacts can be made physical, at least hypothetically as the DRM-protected eBooks on which the industry is built are expressly designed to defeat such purposes. This is not quite the object of my post, though, and I feel both our arguments can co-exist peacefully here.

      As for the branding aspect, I encourage you to distinguish the symbol from the experience. Modern branding theory is quite right to herald the experience as a powerful bond between the client and the provider: whoever experiences a great product or a great service, whoever is « surprised and delighted » will remember and come back.

      I disagree, though about our being « past the physical form ». We relate to the world through physical forms and these forms shape our perception of what objects are and of how they should behave. We base a great many decisions on what the physical world tells us, and we convey most of our messages through a complex network of symbols.

      Here too, I feel our two propositions are not mutually exclusive: the disappearance of the book as a symbol does not preclude the actual reading experience from improving, thereby creating ever-stronger bonds between readers and the texts they read.

  3. Ideas are granted lighter faster vehicles. The Universe loves speed.

    • Yes, but what about permanence? Are our eBooks going to be like flashes of light? (I am an ebook lover, but I also appreciate traditional print book lovers points of view). 

  4. Welcoming something new, path-breaking has never been easy for anyone, especially when that new thing happen to change the way a person has been living. However, the good it has been doing to the society and to readers, in general, is too big to overlook.

    • Whenever something big happens, like the current transition to eBooks, I believe we owe it to ourselves as a society to discuss and dissect the ways in which this something can and will affect existing conventions. This sometimes enables us to prevent problems from cropping up, that were not originally foreseen, because they lie in the margins.

      However, and that is a rather big however, this does not mean that we refuse or reject the change, or even that we see it under a negative light. After all, it is quite possible to be critical of something one enjoys or which one believes to be fundamentally good.

      I have many reservations about eBooks in general, and the way they are being introduced in particular, but I enjoy them tremendously and do not wish to see them go away.

      I hope this clarifies the tone in which the article above should be read. Thanks for chiming in!

  5. “A reassuring promise of humanity.” Perfect and beautiful.

  6. I enjoyed this article. At times I feel bittersweet about the trend to e-publishing, the loss of the physical book. However, this feeling is tempered by the joy of my Kindle Fire. I have titles that are important to me either as a great read or a great resource, and I can carry them all with me. I would not trade the convenience for anything at this point. I agree, we must tap into emotional triggers. We also need to discover new emotional triggers for the new book, e-format. I am confident these new ideas will unfold in time.

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