‘When a book or album no longer takes up space, doesn’t it seem less important, less precious?’
Regarding ebooks, I try to be positive. They’ve increased the number of fiction readers. Content is (nearly) all, and text is constant across Kindles and hardbacks. So far, most readers seem willing to pay for digital books (although Amazon is schooling them to pay less than the cost of production, and spooked publishers have been playing down the erosions of piracy). Still, at the risk of my sounding an old fart: across the arts, the slide from tangible product to electronic abstraction entails a host of losses, some subtle, others collectively monumental.
The benefits of the digital revolution are obvious. Convenience. Nearly infinite access to virtual libraries of every sort of literature, cinema, TV, music, painting. My own environs are jam-packed with physical books, since I’ve only recently discovered the relief of throwing a few away. Stashing whole shelves of CDs, DVDs, and novels on midget gizmos (or in the modern secularist’s version of heaven, the cyber-cloud), declutters our homes and lightens moving house. We can now slip whole vanloads of civilisation into a shirt pocket.
Yet a product you cannot hold in your hand is unable to seduce with a range of design elements that are tactile. Reading Standpoint online, you won’t necessarily know that its format is outsize, its paper thick and slick, its cover matt and dusty; you won’t appreciate that the magazine is pleasingly heavy. With book production exploring a newly wide range of textures, what a pity that an accelerating number of readers won’t ever run their hands over rubberised, velvet, foil, or embossed jackets, will never riffle the torn edges of retro deckle pages, but will only poke at keys.
And the sameness of digital products has a levelling effect. We are already well on our way to obliterating the once-mighty hard line between published and unpublished work. That may be good news to the barbarians at the gates, some of whom deserve an audience. But it is not good news for cultural consumers, should the result be a worldwide slush pile of sludge. That sameness, all your books, music, films, and photos sharing the same drab suffixes, insidiously implies that the content is fungible as well.
Most vitally, when a product no longer takes up space, when you can’t touch it, when it doesn’t insist itself on your eye in a room in your house, doesn’t it seem less important? Less precious. This must be a leading reason that younger people grew up convinced that all music should be free. Earlier formats, LPs or CDs, still involved an object, bought from a shop or shipped in the post. But one instinctively ascribes less value to the insubstantial. Though the cost of printing constitutes only a small fraction of the cost of bringing a book to market, ebook buyers must battle a gut conviction that any product with no more material presence than air should be as free as air as well. Newspapers and magazines are suffering a fiscal crisis not only from having foolishly given their articles away for a click, but also because they’re becoming intangible—another elusive abstraction that you can’t unfurl, fold, or clip.
Technological revolutions are never over, either, and commercial interests are highly motivated to keep the programme moving. A friend of mine who died last autumn left behind a vast library of classic films, a lifetime’s passionate accumulation, but his executor can’t find anyone to adopt the collection because most of the movies are on video cassettes. Me, I cleared out my desk drawers last week, removing hundreds of microfloppies—novels, journals, and personal correspondence that had magically metamorphosed into plastic coffee coasters. Ditto the files on magnetic tape. Meanwhile, I trashed dozens of back up discs for obsolete, incompatible software.
Point being: all that deceptive, seeming nothingness stored on gadgets or in the cloud can readily transform into actual, worthless, total-gibberish nothingness in a few short years. By contrast, anyone’s ability to decode the scrawled, decades-old journals stored in my attic would be solely impaired by my lousy handwriting. In a purely digital cultural world, we could be a virus or internet crash away from having swathes of artistic achievement vanish into the ether overnight.
We still prize stuff-which is why some publishers believe that in future the physical book will be all the more treasured, and the answer to ebooks is hardbacks that are sumptuous, lavish, exquisite. For when whole media no longer take the form of concrete objects, the media themselves will surely come to feel ephemeral-a little less real. Were we no longer to manufacture three-dimensional books, the notion of the book itself could start to seem flimsy, transient, disposable. Ideally, a library that occupies physical space in one’s home reflects in some measure the space it occupies in one’s head.