The Persistent Fetish: the printed book in the digital age

persistentfetishThe book, as we have known and loved it for half a millennium and more, is an object of veneration for many. I am undeniably a bibliophile, and while it is most often the content of a book, or the promise of the title or author, or perhaps a recommendation or review, that leads me to buy it and read it, I am equally sure that the nature of the object itself plays a huge part in my love of books. The book – printed, bound, tactile, replete with promise – arguably is fetishized like no other object in history.

And rightly so, since it is the book that powered the Enlightenment, that gave us our universities, that enabled mass education and that propelled large parts of our world towards the many and varied attempts at democracy. Equally, of course, it is that same fetishization of the book that has played its part through the ages in sustaining so many variations on irrationality. We see this in the veneration of certain books as, somehow, the word of one or another of the many ‘one true’ gods that mankind has felt the need to invent across time and place. The book allows us to read and ponder the words of Plato or Popper, Krishnamurti or Kipling, Hitchens or Hemingway, Coetzee or Coelho – but it also allows those who would persuade us of their righteousness to pass off the words of mere mortals as sacred or immutable, and indeed the physical book containing those words as itself somehow hallowed. The book has been a component part of our humanity, in other words, since we first started to scratch on stones or slates.

So the book is both a powerful medium for the capture and transfer of knowledge, ideas and sentiments, and yet also a potent artefact in its own right, as an object in some sense distinct from the content within its bindings. From a cultural and educational perspective it is, of course, the content of books that should remain centrally important to us. The expression of ideas, thoughts, experience, human dilemmas and conjecture in the words on the page, the encapsulation of knowledge in text and image: it is these that have contributed, and continue to contribute, in so many different ways to the development of humankind. For all our fetishization of the book as an object, it is the elementary role of the book as a repository of knowledge, concepts and imagination that remains the critical ingredient of the form in its contribution to humanity’s search for enlightenment, validation and pleasure.

However, even in this increasingly digitized age, when we are so easily able to separate the ‘book as knowledge’ from the ‘book as object’, I believe that the printed book can continue to hold a place in our hearts. While the knowledge it encapsulates remains central, we should not in any way diminish the continuing significance of the physical object as something to be enjoyed too. This could be inspired by the aesthetics of the object itself; I hope that more and more writers will wish to see special editions of their books printed so that readers can make that choice between simply accessing the content on an e-book or purchasing a physical version of it that is a beautiful and desirable object in itself. I believe that more and more publishers will see a growing market for beautifully produced printed books that people want to own as much as to read.

In addition, however, I believe that those same digital technologies that seem to be threatening the physical book’s very existence will also begin (are already beginning) to be used increasingly to enhance the pleasure of reading from the printed page. Still in its early days, the potential  of deploying augmented reality technologies to heighten and amplify the experience of reading from the printed page will give us even more reasons to continue to print and purchase physical books. With a book in one hand and a smartphone in the other, the reader will be able to stop at any juncture, point their phone at the page and be taken off to look at the definitions or etymology of words, to see images and movies of places being described in the text, to bring still images to life in video or animation, to hear the author or a critic speak about the section being read, to exchange comments and notes with the community of readers of the same book all across the world, to delve into the original manuscript in the author’s hand (from pre-digital times most likely) in order to see how many attempts it took by the author to carve out that final phrasing, and a million other possibilities besides. And this will be true of any kind of printed objects, whether books, magazines, newspapers, store catalogues, brochures, whatever.

The purist, as is their right, will always want to stick with the final text and nothing else. But for many of us this powerful bringing together of the Gutenberg galaxy and the digital sphere will offer the possibility of ensuring that  the physical printed book can have a new lease of life.

So, between the book as a beautiful object of desire and the digital enhancement of the printed book, our enduring fetish for the book will persist, I am sure.