College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3

The Future of The Book

by Mark Moss, Ed.D.

As every generation if not every decade progresses, the one staple that has been part of education and knowledge, the book, seems to be increasingly singled out as an endangered species. The threats to the culture of the book are constant and seemingly endless. Yet, given it robust capacity to survive the question that must be asked is not, will the book survive, but rather, in what form and in what manner will it be around?

The late Anthony Burgess had a clever interpretation for the word BOOK, as an acronym, he called the book, a "Box of Organized Knowledge" (Burgess, 1984, p.12). And that is quite apt in the fact that they are organized and there is a great deal of knowledge stored in the bound box. This is in contrast to the vagaries of what is available on the WWW and the nonlinearity of hypertext. This last point is important. We read a book and look at or scan a screen, no matter how high definition. The latter is easier to do. One significant reason people print long documents off the computer, rather than read them in that format, is that when we read on the screen, it is "unnatural" in that "reading is a left-brain activity, whereas viewing video is a right-brain one." This "conflict" is a major reason why the book will survive, especially for longer and more literary creations (Logan, 1995, p. 278).

The modern heyday of the printed word could be said to have occurred, in the west, and in the United States and Canada, between the Victorian period and the end of the First World War. According to Lacy (1987, p. 118), "print played - as it never had before and never would again - a dominant and exclusive role." Print culture was omnipotent at this time, with film and photography only making slight inroads and not really having a major impact until the 1920s. The reason for print being so effective as a medium at this time is that cultural forces such as compulsory education, the creation of libraries and mass literacy merged with technological ones, such as the steam driven press, to produce an enormous quantity of reading material that was voraciously consumed (Baron,2000, p.80; Postman, 1993, p.44). As Gabler (1998, p.29) has observed about this period in the United States, "Literacy among ordinary Americans was relatively high then, and nearly everyone seemed to love to read."

Books may no longer be the key repositories of knowledge that they once were. They are not capable of moulding the "public imagination" in the way they were during the late part of the 19th century and the early 20th century (Fulford, 1994, p.803). Today's child or student has so much to choose from that making the choice to read can be a serious obstacle. Looking at picture books is not the same as reading. Mastering the alphabet is not the same as reading. Whereas one hundred years or so ago, the child had both no choice as well as few if any alternatives, today, the force of television poses a serious threat. There is no question that children who have grown up watching television visualize in a way that is quite different from earlier generations.

Whatever constitutes literacy today (Tyner, 1998, p.13), according to Gibson has been impacted by the visual; and "is being pulled in [yet] another direction with the nonlinearity, nonsequentiality, and interactivity of several forms of hypertext." Gibson goes on to restate Ong's assumption that literacy, in the form of writing and print will be around because it is necessary to many in society. Yet there are instances which suggest that the differing dispositions and visual nature of hypertext is more suited to a post-modern society that values speed and instantaneous responses (Gibson, 2000, pp.8,9).

What has occurred in western culture as far as the impact of digital communication upon literacy is that there has been a conflation of many forms of communication - oral, written, print and electronic - into one significant new hybrid. This hybrid has been described as a "malleable nugget(s) of data", which has the power to empower "diverse media to converge gracefully into a unified audiovisual schema" (Tyner, 1998. p.13).

Reading requires a linear visual sequencing. Television watchers read as if they are watching television, by taking "quick looks." The process of taking in information has changed since the advent of television and relegates reading to a secondary stature Krugman, 1977, p.8). If reading happens outside of school, it occurs less and less. According to one study, "by the time they reach Grade 12, less than 25 per cent of kids read daily for pleasure" (Rivers, 1995, p.31).

One reason is certainly the fact that other information and entertainment options are present, but there are also other factors.

Even as "sacred" an environment as the library has undergone radical changes in order to accommodate the increasing influence of visualized media technology. What once was a bastion of print culture, quiet and sacrosanct has come to resemble not "the conservation of literacy's history, the education of the heart, eye and mind" but a place of "amusement" (Gass, 1999, p.48). In the words of Tisdale, the library is a "trendy, up-to-date, plugged" place. This in itself is not bad, for it is in keeping up with the times and thus most be both recognized and adhered to - to some extend - but with certain qualifications. Like museums, the library is according to Tisdale, a place where there is everything but books. One can debate the merits of this but one runs up against the question, "so what". As Tisdale observes, "you can now get movies there and Nintendo games, drink cappuccino, and surf cyberspace, go to a gift shop or a cafeteria, rent a sewing machine or a camera" (Tisdale, 1997, p.86). While Tisdale laments the passing of the quiet library which was devoted to solitary scholarship, she recognizes that the library "is made more popular by the addition of Internet stations and CD-ROM games" (Tisdale, 1997, pp.67,68). Like the museum that struggles to bring in patrons, the library has to adapt. And like the movie that may provoke a child to go out in search of a book, the library brings in the potential readers with attractions that they can relate to. This is especially significant for university and college libraries which are now debating between the requirements necessary for the digital age and the importance and continuing relevance of the book as the standard source of knowledge. What is at the heart of this battle is the fact the books are often displaced in favour of fancy new technology that emphasizes the thrust towards computers. Books on shelves take up enormous amounts of space and given the pressures that institutions of higher education are under; they are quickly being removed, placed underground or in warehouses, away from the main building of the library or learning commons. (Carlson, 2002).

The supreme example of this new form of library/information centre as a response to digital/visual culture is the five year old San Francisco Public Library. The building itself and the controversy surrounding its construction, purpose and place in society is a lightening rod in the debate over book versus electronic visual culture. As Tyner has stated, the library "is the site where the culture of books collides with the emerging digital culture of the late 20th century" (Tyner, 1997, p.10). The library was designed to be the "model" of the new digital culture. It was stocked with all the latest technology: satellite access, video conferencing capability, an electronic children's playground and hundreds of computer terminals, all of which, had to displace numerous stacks of books (Tyner, 1997, p.10). And therein lies the major problem.

The problem is that where reading was once a key feature of life, both sacred and fatuous, it is increasingly absent from these spectrums. Whereas once everyone read on the train, today they are listening to their Discman's and playing Nintendo. Whereas once, individuals took the time to focus and concentrate on reading, they now prefer to be informed by numerous other methods (Levine, 1991, 161-187).

One barometer of the indication that the kind of reading that is going on has evolved is the fact that over the last sixty plus years, the length of the sentence in an analysis of best-sellers, has declined, as have the number of punctuation marks. The contemporary best-seller, according to Gitlin (2001, pp.99-101), contains sentences that are "briefer, simpler, and closer to screenplays." Gitlin's survey takes into account the fact that over this chronological period, television has moved to the centre of culture. Consequently, writers, in seeking an audience have had to change the way they write in order to appeal to people who are in need of simpler content, due to laziness or time constraints, and "popular fiction" for example, resembles television. To a great extent, Gitlin is correct in his analysis. The most popular book "franchise" - the single most profitable series of the last fifteen years has been the Star Wars series, which has consistently appeared on the New York Times best-seller list (Seabrook, 2000, p.133). The fact is, most best-sellers, have some key relationship with other media: film, photography, television or the Internet.

This is not to say that reading will disappear. Surfing the net involves an inordinate amount of reading (Tyner, 1997, p.40). The problem is - for now - that it is more oriented around information that knowledge. This is significant for there is just so much information out there. Who, one might ask, has the time to read for knowledge? But perhaps, we our moving towards a scenario that encompasses speed and brevity in reading. We attempt to sift out the "extraneous" information and gravitate directly in our reading, toward what we need. This process, more akin to culling than reading, means that "the reading we practice seems more and more to involve short bursts or shallow attendings" (Levy, 2001, p.113). What this may also suggest is that reading is not the only way to acquire information. To some extent there is a form of convergence going on. As Lyman writes, "the computer will not replace the book any more than the book has replaced electronic speech. Oral, print, and digital media are not alternatives; rather, it is the interrelationship of these modes of communication that is significant in shaping public knowledge" (Lyman, 1996, pp.4-5). The main problem is that to a great extent people and in particular, children, must want to read. Reading is threatened not so much by technology but by the fact that there is a general lack of will to read in North American culture. As Birkerts has lamented, others, such as Lamm, are concerned that the reading that is done has been reduced to its lowest form; digest publications, executive summaries, abstracts, Cliff's notes and so on (Lamm,1996, p.139).

One can add the resurgence of icon or graphical shorthand to this mix, and even the decline of letter writing. By extension, even the way one writes has changed. The short forms of words that are a staple of e-mail, have now found their way into the mainstream of writing. It is now almost acceptable to use the most informal forms of address as well as to leave in typos. "Terseness" is key as is, in harmony with the emphasis on speed, the ubiquitous abbreviations. As Ross (2001, p.E3) writes in an article celebrating 30 years of e-mail, "Writing out the full phrase 'by the way' was more labour-and-time-intensive than simply typing BTW." On the positive side of this, what is perhaps warranted is the ability to intellectually multi-task. According to Vassar English Professor, Michael Joyce, "In an age like ours, a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings."(cited in Levy, 2001, p.114). The ability to grasp, quickly, the information from a variety of different textual sources may be seen to be just as relevant and may even supersede the necessity for prolonged focus and concentration. Viewed in this light, books and the book-oriented process of research may seem both archaic and cumbersome.

Changes in the "material aspects of texts" and the "material containers" of where writing goes is just the beginning (Kaplan, 1989, pp.212-213). What this means is that whether one is talking about a papyrus scroll, a stone tablet, an illuminated manuscript, a printed book or hypertext 29, these "material containers" alter the relationship of the reader to the reading. With the interactivity of the new media and in particular, hypertext, what happens is that the stationary physicality of the culture of print can evaporate and the once orderly world of the reader - and by extension, the writer - dissipates. The fixed roles of the reader and the writer (and the publisher) become fluid and blend together, in a way not to dissimilar from the early days of print "The reader," according to Lanham, "can change it [the text], becomes writer (Lanham, 1993, p.31)."

Another vital qualification in this context is the fact that the problem with a digital document or a digital material is that it is dependent upon electronics to give it life. Unlike pure paper documents, the digitized version requires an electronic tool to define itself. The paper book can stand alone while the digital document must have some other force to literally give it life. This gives it a more dynamic, and even powerful existence, but as has been recognized, is also confusing and schizophrenic (Levy, 2001, p.138). Related to this is the fact is that there is more data available now than at any other time in history, but at the same time, more of it is being lost. Technologically driven data storage cannot keep pace with changing computer hardware and software. It would take centuries to constantly re-archive and reformat material that exists in a specific electronic format now and convert it to the latest format available. This in turn, gives rise to questions about what to keep and what to "discard" before a particular version becomes obsolete (Stille, 2002, p.300). On the one hand, the digitized versions can offer historians a bounty of unprecedented quantity, but this is almost an unreachable plateau. "As the pace of technological change increases," writes Stille, "so does the speed at which each new generation of equipment supplants the last (p.301)." While societies are saving tremendous amounts of information, the media used to "save" or preserve, is increasingly less and less durable (p. 302).

Kaplan (cited in Gibson, 2000, p.9) suggests that one must be very aware of where reading is situated. One cannot divorce the act of deciphering or breaking the code from the contextualized situation. If one does do this, which she accuses Birkerts of doing, then the often quoted generalizations crop up. With regard to reading on the screen, some of these criticisms include the discomfort factor, the fact that paper is tactile, and, consistently, the fact that you can't take a computer in the bath - yet. The touch/smell sensory aspect of the book is one the comes up as a comparative concern over and over again. Some feel that it is nothing more "than the bibliophile's pleasure in handling his possessions (Nunberg, 1993, p.17)". Yet, with magnanimous written objects, from the Torah to a document like the Declaration of Independence, larger cultural and political concerns are at stake. What is interesting is the smaller, micro-objectification. We all have a tendency to get attached to material objects such as the calculator on your desk and thus, why shouldn't the computer or 'e-book' take on the same kind of fetish appeal. Still, we still have a long way to go before we can reproduce the tactile and sensory complexity of Pat the Bunny (Nunberg, 1993, p.17).

Until these and other problems and characteristics can be worked out, the advantage remains in favour of the book. Even when computer software billionaire Bill Gates released his first book in the early nineties, it came with a CD-ROM! (Lyall, 1994, p.3). If Gates wasn't ready to abandon this functional and sacred object, then the future is still bright for the printed word. The traditional book is a relatively safe object; it is comforting to hold one and familiar to even a child.

Even with the eBook, one must still abide by some restrictions that the traditional book is not bound. And reading on a laptop or desktop is still much more restrictive than the book (Gumpert, 1987, p.154). While it is restrictive - on the one hand, it is dynamic on the other. Another key feature of hypertext is the fact that in contrast to "traditional print" there is the characteristic of motion. Movement is a central feature of the text - the hypertext - that gives it a "kinetic quality" which encourages a form of itneractivity (Gibson, p.9). The problem here is that stationary print provokes reflection, but the dynamic provocations on the computer screen encourage the opposite. Images and movement may force the receiver to act, rather than reflect (Armstrong and Casement, 1998, p.15).

If you look at the historical record, you would find the same biases directed toward every new reading development. For example, reading was difficult for most until the development of artificial lighting (Kaplan, 1989, p.212; Darnton, 1989) . Printed books were met with hostility by those most threatened by the printing press, the monks in scriptoriums (Logan, 1995, p.60). Perhaps though, it is best to perceive of the state of the book in these terms: "the passage of time re-arranges their position in the order of daily life, sometimes pushing them from the centre to the margins (Fulford, 1994, p. 803)."

The place and the future of the book in an age that is technologically driven and visually oriented are safe if one looks at the number of books published and the revenues generated. In 1997 over two billion books were sold generating 26 billion dollars in revenue, indicating that "despite assaults from exploding video offerings and computerization, print culture in the United States has maintained a surprising rate of growth…" (Bernt & Bernt, 2000, p.1). Print culture, in all its manifestations grew in the late nineties. The World Wide Web has been an aid to the culture of books, in particular, the used book market as well as for smaller stores. The WWW "has established an international market, a community or culture of collectors, scholars, librarians, and everyday readers seeking specific titles" (Bernt & Bernt, 2000, pp.2-3). Thus, in its most simplistic form, the move toward electronic technologies is no different from the impact of moveable type. Radical changes will occur in the way information is disseminated yet people will still read. As publishing guru and pioneer, Epstein (2001, p.xiii) writes, "technologies change the world but human nature remains the same." The fact is that people will read.

Fulford (1994) has suggested that every predecessor of the printed book has gone on to become "technologically obsolete" after a period - even a very long period - of time. Yet, the antecedents of a previous information/reading technology can still live on and possess great power .48 Fulford cites the Torah as an example of this and feels that despite the fact that the most convenient form will inevitably be adopted, "books will survive as art objects and icons" (Fulford, p.804). But they will survive. One reason that they will survive and more so than just as curiosities, is the cost factor. They are, regardless of format, reasonably cheap. And they are much cheaper and more accessible than computers or 'e-book' alternatives. Both the hardware and software of digitization is extremely expensive and it thus limiting in access (Fulford, pp.809-810). Yet despite this potential, there are those who strongly feel that with the exception of a few antiquarians and those too stubborn to change, the book has no choice to but to step aside. By stepping aside, it is moving "to the margin of our literate culture." This Mcluhanesque observation is being made by an academic who studies classics. Bolter contends that "the issue is not whether print technology will completely disappear; books may long continue to be printed for certain kinds of texts and for luxury consumption. But the idea and the ideal of the book will change: print will no longer define the organization and presentation of knowledge, as it has for the past five centuries." Instead, what will result will be new ways to write and new formats which supersede the book (Bolter, 1991, pp.2-3). The most common version of publishing, a variation on the 'e-book' is pegged to be a form of a "kiosk" where one could go and download or transfer texts that in some cases are printed and bound in single copies Epstein, 2001, p.xii).

Even those ardent bibliophiles, those most enamoured with the printed book are willing to concede that certain electronic alternatives do have merit, especially given space and environmental concerns. Scientific journals which depend on timeliness more than works of history have been found to be more amenable to electronic formats, but until technology can make reading them as attractive as reading a 'hard copy' this development will likely have to wait (Borgman, 2000, pp.90, 92). The tons and tons of official government documents, which range from directories to census reports, as well as the mountains of books and printed material that come with every major technology, may be better off being produced in an electronic format. Accessing information from the last text version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is a telling example of the situation. The set itself, last available in the early nineties cost about $1500.00 U.S. and weighed about 118 pounds. It took up more than four feet of shelving space as well. The electronic version or a comparable CD-ROM cost no more than $100.00 and weighed less than an ounce (Lyall,1994, p.3). As well, there are numerous interactive and dynamic supplements such as the ability to listen to music when clicking Beethoven or seeing a very colourful reproduction when accessing Edvard Munch (Lyall, p.3). Lyall makes a similar comparison with the hefty multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. She cites Norman, who surmises that in the very near future, the electronic dictionary will be the definitive format, because "they offer ease of access and readability" (Lyall, p.20).

It is essential to distinguish here from high culture books and the more mundane technical and official writing that seems to grow larger and more cumbersome every year (Nunberg, 1993, p.14). Included in this mix is the fact that the e-book seems more appropriate or conducive to low brow literature along the lines of Stephen King and Michael Crichton. This rekindles the familiar hostility that copyists exhibited towards printed works. As was hinted at earlier, there was the assumption and expectation that the printed works were inferior and dangerous in comparison to the manuscript. This same sentiment was voiced with regard to the paperbacks that came out in the 1930s and again in the 1950s (Manguel, 1996, pp,133;140-142; Weisberg, 2000, pp.23-24). Barzun (1987, p.141)insists that there is a grand difference when one reads for information and when one reads to expand one's mind or soul. Only the later can be accessed through books (Barzun, p.141). So, as we must distinguish between the two spheres of text - the literary and the more prosaic, we must also distinguish from reading on a desktop personal computer or even a laptop and the electronic versions of books such as the eBook.

Even the most loyal devotee of computer culture will no doubt have a problem reading a full-length book on the average personal computer screen. As of 2002, these devices are still in their infancy as far as what will eventually be available. Who knows how light, easy to see and how clear the screens will become in the near future. These "tablets" have potential as receptacles but, with access to virtually everything on the net, the limits seem unbounded Blackwell, 2001, p.K6). The Rocket eBook, a device the size of a paperback, shows grand potential. The Rocket shows one page at a time and has a large selection of texts that can be accessed. One can hold it with one hand - it is light, adjust the lighting, and the device even keeps your place (Weisberg, 2000). As Weisberg (p.24) writes,

There is no reason to believe our culture will be poorer even in amorphous ways when people absorb them [novels] from screens as well. And in definite and obvious ways, readers and writers alike will be richer for the access they will gain to an electronic version of Borges's infinite "Library of Babel." In the near future, books will cost little or nothing, never go out of print and remain eternally available throughout the wired world. Can anyone really be against that?

While Weisberg's sentiments are quite optimistic and refreshing, they don't take into account the fact that what is in the wired world is not oriented around permanence, but rather, is subject to the vagaries of technology and space. On the one hand, this means that older technologies prevent the reader from accessing information stored in a specific format because these models have become obsolete and have disappeared. On the other hand what appears on the web one day, disappears the next. This "serendipity of cyberspace" means - or could mean, that we are not as concerned with the preservation of the past or of the present for that matter, as we once were Gibson, p.10). To a great extent, this is a boon for the lover of the book. As technology continues to change the book remains accessible and virtually uneroded by the necessity of a display system (Lerner, 1999, p.209).


1. Tyner writes (p.13) : "…historical shifts in the tools of literacy change conceptions about what it means to be literate - a much more vixing and complicated question."

2.This information is based on the work of H. Krugman, who published his findings in the late seventies. Krugman feels that their is increased difficulty in learning to read when a child has been exposed to television from an early age.

3.One must keep in mind that reading/literacy was a key feature of life in the last few hundred years and significant here is the fact that it was not just the privilege of the elite. Levine contends that it wasn't just books but the theatre as well, that served as a key cultural transmission site, comparing the theatre in the nineteenth century to the place of movies in the twentieth century.

4. Tyner writes (p.40) : "The Internet borrows extensively from the conventions of alphabetic literacy and is extremely dependent on the printed word. Static Web pages look like billboards. Interactive Web pages mimic radio, telephone and line speech. The way that pictures and texts work together in multimedia interfaces is reminiscent of the visually stunning illustrations of Biblical texts seen in the illuminated manuscripts of medieval times. E-mail has revived letter writing. In some ways, digital media has the potential to revive and refresh oral and print communication forms, by making new juxtaposition of image, text, and sound possible."

5. Lyman also states: "Print is not a homogenous medium of communication; newspapers and books are significantly different kinds of knowledge artifacts, using different rhetorical forms and having very different social uses." p. 5.

6. New media prophet Nicholas Negroponte writes: "Hypermedia is an extension of hypertext, a term for highly interconnected narrative, or linked information. The idea came from early experiments at the Stanford Research Institute by D. Engelbart and derived its name from work at Brown University by T. Nelson, circa 1965. In a printed book, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters follow one another in an order determined not only by the author but also by the physical and sequential construct of the book itself. While a book may be randomly accessible and your eyes may browse quite haphazardly, it is nonetheless forever fixed by the confines of three physical dimensions." Being Digital, (New York: A. Knopf, 1995), p. 69.

7. Rosen, in The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), pp. 8, 9, suggests that these older media/texts do not only possess great power, but also, parallel in some ways, new technology: "I have often thought, contemplating a page of Talmud, that it bears a certain uncanny resemblance to a home page of the Internet, where nothing is whole in itself but where icons and text boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross-referenced texts and conversations."

8. On p. 92, Borgman writes, "Most of the activities of scholars, publishers, and libraries are likely to be conducted differently with the proliferation of information technologies, the availability of a broader array of formats, and the shifting economics of scholarly publishing. Librarians see advantages to electronic journals, as do other players. They can provide electronic journals on demand to their user communities, 24 hours per day, without incurring the costs of physical storage space on library shelves. Electronic journals are searchable in more ways than print journals, and they can be packaged in a variety of ways to provide new services. Though publishers and libraries may operate much differently a decade or two hence, they will continue to exist and to be essential."

9. Nunberg writes, "The printed documentation that accompanies the delivery of a single Boeing 747 weighs about 350 tons, only slightly less than the airplane itself. Who would have any reservations about putting texts like these into electronic form, if it will make the world a roomier and greener place?"


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Mark Moss holds a Master's degree in media and environmental studies from York University and a doctorate in history of education from OISE/Uof T.  He is the author of Manliness and Militarism (Oxford, 2001) and numerous essays of history and popular culture topics.  His current project focuses the relationship between visual forms of historical knowledge and their impact on traditional historical thought.  Mark is a Chair in the Faculty of General Education at Seneca College. He can be reached at or 416 491-5050 Ext.2231


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