With nearly EVERYTHING being transformed to a digital or online medium, there’s a lot of discussion about whether the physical novel will be phased out along with other art forms. We already see newspapers and magazines converting, and music did a long time ago. I don’t think it’s absurd to believe novels are next, but I’m going to hold on to the hope that they remain sacred enough to keep around as physical objects.
But honestly, what is the argument for books being preserved over music or newspapers? They cost more, they are just as difficult to steal (kidding. I mean I’m sure they are, but..), carrying many of them at once is difficult, the actual content is not compromised when transferred to digital—sounds like it might be a lost cause.
Think about the tangible qualities of a novel: You can write notes in the margins, underline parts, dog-ear pages, use memorabilia as bookmarks. And what about the wear and tear a favorite book displays as a badge of honor after years of reading and rereading? Or there’s the pungent scent of the breeze created from flipping pages—differing with a book’s age and the materials it was made from, conveying an unknown history of where the words may have been.
Do these compare to characteristics of other endangered artifacts of artistic expression? I think vinyl’s come close to possessing the novel’s venerable status, but then again I also still covet a large collection of those. I’m 22 and I’ve had many options for playing music throughout my life, but I don’t think CDs and cassette tapes have the palpable aesthetic qualities of an old (or new) record. Something about the process—removing a large fragile vinyl disc from a sleeve, with music delicately etched into its surface, all encased in a cardboard canvas of sorts. Then, having to carefully place a needle on it to receive the auditory pleasure and remain present and attentive to flip it—the ritual aspect of listening to a record is inherently more special than the action of opening a plastic case and shoving more plastic into still more plastic. And listening to vinyl is certainly more satisfying than pressing a button on a hunk of metal smaller than your hand, not to mention the differences in sonic quality, the warm analog hiss versus the compressed mp3s streaming from an iPod.
Anyway, back to books. There’s also the fact that novels have endured for so long. The earliest work that’s been called the first novel is from 1470, while the earliest known modern sound recording is from 1859. And the novel has arguably gone through more technological stages than music when considering all the different printing, paper type, and distribution advancements. Perhaps it’s here to stay?
All that said, I’m more than willing to imagine the exciting possibilities of fully digitized storytelling. I’m not too well read on the subject (har har), but I see a lot of design options coming into play with e-books. Each page could have a unique background or margin design. Different fonts could be used throughout, or for different speakers. Colors could be abundant and illustrative, pictures could become more commonplace, or there could even be interactive elements. Maybe you could combine the words and pictures and sounds and have the words spoken out loud or with the pictures moving or … oh wait, that’s called a movie.
Not to be too cynical—I do think there are some serious opportunities for innovative design work within digital books. I also think that what makes it so plausible (and perhaps why none of these design ideas are commonly implemented in printed versions) is the money saved when you get rid of all printing costs.
But I ask you, Future, please leave the printed novel be, like you’ve done with … I don’t know… walking? Or not.