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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