18 Responses to “Is the book a crucial cultural artifact, or just an outdated container for content?”

  1. Angus Swan

    One factor no one has brought up is economics. Market substitutes tend to push out their forbears if they offer an equivalent product experience at lower cost. Physical books are fundamentally much less efficient than their electronic counterparts. This is because of the manpower and energy required to generate and transport the raw materials for printing and assembly, and then the impact on fossil-fuels for delivery to the distribution point and then to point of sales. Frankly, it is ludicrous to continue to mindlessly ship around physical representations of media that can be copied and shipped instantly electronically at infinitesimal cost. Books will continue to be printed and acquired, but will become more a luxurious curiosity.

  2. Rann Xeroxx

    What I have seen when browsing through B&N is that there are a lot of crappy books. I think what will happen is that “disposable” books will to the e route while there will still be printed books of quality. Note that I am not assigning quality to books I like, just what any segment might assign to a book or work.

    Photographs did not do away with paintings and neither will ebooks do away with printed books. Both will cont. to have their place.

  3. Fascinating topic an one that hasn’t really reached wide distribution yet. There are those that hold that the loss of books equates to the loss of history, but I struggle to see how that’s the case when we’re saving everything..meaning history becomes a database of facts and ideas rather than a ‘view’.

  4. The economic and associated interactions environment is as important as the format and also part of the medium.
    And about this what is happenning is first an extreme concentration around a few “vertical monsters”, and the fact that ones bookshelf isn’t private anymore.
    Seperating “private bookshelf holder”(only references or contracts), and creators/sellers/hosters would probably do more in favouring new content, why not simply websites to be bought (access to) “for life”, for instance.

  5. Allen Lau

    Storytelling existed for thousand of years (since the caveman probably). It survived many transitions including the movable type. I can’t see why it can’t survive the digital transition.

    Whether “book” will survive, it really depends on how narrowly “book” is defined. Encyclopedia still exists in the form of Wikipedia, but this net-native version of encyclopedia killed both the paper and digital version of the old (Britannica and Microsoft Encarte).

    The net-native version of “book” is still in its infancy. I believe it will kill paper books and e-books (in its current form) in similar fashion.

  6. Civilization is about more choices, not about replacement. What is ending is the monopoly of the book, not its existence. Digital creation and display add a quasi infinite series of possibilities for storytelling with words, images, sound, video, from Twitter to 3D immersion. Great. The paper book and the book as digital format will stay, only marginalized among 1000 other choices. The book is dead. Long live the book.

  7. Larry Borsato

    This discourse seems to neglect the aesthetic of a book. The feel of the book in your hand, the physical turning of the pages and, especially in reference books, the ability to visually reference related content easily by flipping back or forth in the book. Bookmarks in e-books do not provide this visual and tactile ability. So I think that both have their place and will continue to do so.

    • Angus Swan

      Ebook reader clients provide the ability to bookmark, and also to highlight with notes and aggregate those automatically for instant access, and even share these socially with other readers, so i don’t follow your point about physical books having an advantage in that regard.

  8. What killed the epic poem? A number of factors, obviously. But print, with its requirement of a minimum number of copies per run, was surely one of them. Digital distribution is liberating. If you are able to create an epic poem, write it and put it up on Smashwords. Put an audio version on Podiobooks. Will it be identical to the oral epic poems of past centuries? Of course not. And perhaps only 100 people will read it. But if they are the right 100 people a lost artform can be revived, free from commercial restraints.

  9. Josh Catone

    In general, I hate when people stop by and drop links into comments, but I just wrote about this very topic at Mashable on Wednesday.


    In general, my view probably aligns more with Carr’s — I think there is still value in the printed format beyond just as a cultural artifact.

    My conclusion, though, ultimately backs up both Carr and Shirky, to an extent. I feel that e-books and printed books might end up being more divergent as mediums than one replacing the other. There have yet to be many artists who have truly explored what is possible with digital storytelling. Instead, we’re mostly just given facsimiles of the printed format, which lacks much value over convenience and portability.

    Shirky is right that the web will ultimately allow artists to tell stories in ways that don’t match our current conceptions of what makes a “book” or a “novel” (though it doesn’t matter if we call these things e-books or shmoobies — that’s just a name, so it’s a mistake to say that e-books are a transition to something else… they could just be a transition to something else we still call e-books ;)).

    Where I think he is wrong, is that you don’t have to discard one art form to make way for another. If that were the case, no one would ever go to the theater. We’d all just watch movies. Those are two different art forms, though they share common genetics. The same will be true of the novel — which won’t die — and whatever new methods of storytelling artists develop.

    • phi tran

      I totally agree, and I will add that many readers I know value books in all forms. Pursuing and creating books and artefacts in as many forms as possible is just another tribute to the story itself. Digital encyclopedias have seen tremendous improvements and I will never go back to it in its ridiculous paper volumes. As far as fiction goes, I still lug my giant Tolstoy novel around all day next to my laptop. I also love pop-up books, which is a great medium in itself.

      I think Mathew should check out Ben Popper’s great insight on the Verve about how animated gif teaches teens the art of silent film – I think we haven’t seen the last of anything just yet.

  10. Nice writeup Mathew. I think the “if ever” should be emphasized.

    A personal joke of mine is to end a conversation with “No, your opinion is wrong.”

    Just try it sometime next time you are in a disagreement about taste. It feels very empowering ;)