A character in my book The Heart of Everything is a failed actor now working in a library. This character, let’s call him Raymond - because I did, indeed, call him Raymond - is of the opinion that there aren’t that many downsides to working in a library: it’s not a particularly taxing job, the hours are good. One disadvantage is that he now tends to automatically idly alphabetize any collection of objects – beer taps for example, he spends a lot of time sitting at bars – but the thing that annoys him is that everyone he meets outside work tells him what they’re reading, assuming that he will want to know. But Raymond being Raymond, he’s not remotely interested. With ebooks the problem has become much worse, he reflects, because now he is expected to admire the device as much as the content.
That opinion I attributed to Raymond came from my experience because when my Dad showed me his new Kindle I fiddled about with it, switched it on and off, all the usual things, with him standing next to me asking did I know what I was doing and telling me to leave off before I broke it. I was probably five questions in before I asked him what he was reading. In other words, before I asked him what he bought the device specifically for; what the first book he was going to read on it. Which is never a question I would have had to ask about printed books – who buys a set of shelves and then goes shopping for books to fill them?
That roundabout approach – one that is led by the medium rather than the message - reminded me of the joke that the American comedian Bill Hicks used to tell about being in a diner somewhere in the States, sitting at a table quietly with his book. A waitress comes over and says, ‘what you reading for?’ But had Bill Hicks been reading on a Kindle no-one would ask that. It just wouldn’t occur. Screens are ubiquitous – we don’t bother to see past the device to the content. Screen is a good name: they hide as well as reveal. Printed covers flip that experience; a book cover is meant to suggest and even unlock the interior.
The book world was thrown into a panic about the uncertain future of print a few years ago: between 2008 and 2010, with the launch of new digital devices, ebook sales (in the US) rose nearly thirteen hundred percent. There were flurries of commentary about the loss of the printed word. Just six years later, digital technology and its applications seem long enough in the tooth for us to be able to look back and see how bumpy a road this has been, certainly as far as culture and the arts are concerned. (By ‘books’ I’m referring only to fiction.) The headlines that screamed the death of the printed book made it sound as though
Raymond Bradbury’s predictions in Fahrenheit 451 had come to pass. But, unlike his flat screen wall TVs and the Seashell ear phones – how clever of him so predict that that images had become public and sounds private - the fate he ascribed to books hasn’t materialized. More recent headlines also missed the mark; such as when Tim Waterstone told the Oxford Literary Festival in 2014 that the digital revolution was over, that ebooks were on the turn and their day was done.
Those extremes are our generation’s equivalent of Flaubert’s declaration in 1839 that ‘painting was dead’; killed at the hands of photography. Or Baudelaire’s comments twenty years later about ‘the invasion of photography and the great industrial madness of our times’. As with digital, once we see past the screen and back to the content, the technology - be it daguerreotype photography or reading a book on an iPhone, as a member of my book club did with Wuthering Heights which of itself shows an unhealthy determination to overcome the limitations of the medium in order to get to the message - then a more reasonable balance can reassert itself.
Print isn’t dead, how can it be? Digital books neither, how can they be? Why? Because, as another science fiction writer, William Gibson said many years ago, ‘the future is not evenly distributed’. In fact, the one thing we do all share equally is liminality. It’s true that there aren’t many places left where digital technology has made no impression: and where there's a digital device, there are ebooks, or at least the potential for them. Unlike my fellow book clubber, screens need not be anyone's primary method of consuming literature, but in some situations they will be the best one. Or the only one – and isn’t a book by any medium better than no book at all?
Stephen King said, ‘a book is a fine thing to have in your hand and turn the pages on a summer day, but so’s a Kindle. You have to teach yourself to appreciate every one of those forms. Doomsayers say this will kill the book. No. The book is not the most important part. The book is the delivery system. The most important part is the story and the talent.’ He also added, which I like, ‘if you drop a book in the toilet you can fish it out and dry it off. It you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you’re done.’ Ebooks exist as, Stephen King put it, as ‘beeps inside a machine’; they aren’t anything you can put on a shelf. And this idea of shelf life is an interesting addition to the pros of print. Even the term shelf life is resonant; it means that what is on display is a physical object. It shares our public space; it has a longevity to its existence.
Ebooks are here to stay because digital is part of our lives, which means that the debate can finally shift from whether print is ‘better’ than digital, or whether eBooks are cannibalizing print. As ebooks have stopped focusing on their differences to print, and assuming that every difference is inherently an advantage, and have instead started playing on what people like about print – (for example, Kindles are now marketed for their similarities to print, such as the whiteness of the paper unlike the color of a screen) then an appropriate balance can be found and what develops can shift below our ordinary level of observation – which is where it should be. Once something becomes embedded in the ordinary, it’s possible to put its real meaning back into it; which is what my character Raymond is really thinking about in his irritation is with the distraction of the device over the content.
But what about as a writer, not a reader? How does ink persist for writers too?
Interestingly, while the word processor firstly and then the computer have been a huge boon for writers that same benefit doesn’t extend through the publishing process. I wonder how many writers wouldn’t be writing if they still had to handwrite or type everything up themselves slowly, and remake it every time? When the Belfast writer Glenn Patterson writes a book, and the last draft is completely finished, he prints it out and makes himself retype it completely, from start to finish, one last time. That way he can double-check that every word has earned its place. It is the labour of carving the entire book out again – even with itself to copy from – that makes him feel that everything that remains after that process has earned its right to stay on the page.
The elephant in the room in the debate about ink is self-publishing. I know people who have self-published and are proud of their books, yet still struggle with that nagging sense that it’s not quite right, that it lacks some divine imprimatur of a publishers. Which makes no sense when you consider that publishing is capitalism: the world is full of wonderful books that will never be read by anyone other than their authors and the publishers who turned them down because they couldn’t imagine how to market them, not because they didn’t think they were great books of themselves. I have to admit, I felt it too: had I not been fortunate enough to get a book deal, I wouldn’t have self-published. I know I wouldn’t. It just wouldn’t have been the same, even though that’s a standard I don’t apply to music or other artforms.
The most significant challenge to the persistence of the printed word isn’t in publishing, but in archiving. There is the most amazing folklore collection here in UCD – it’s primarily print but includes old Ediphone and other recordings too - and it’s fascinating to browse through the material. I met the UCD library archival team last year as part of a new UCD Authors Collection they are putting together to hold the published work of academics and alumni. Part of the discussion was about archiving and the UCD Archival Collections. They are discussing now with authors what to archive for the future but also how because who knows what they might receive in the future as archive material? A bunch of emails on a USB? An old phone handset that might have a text correspondence buried inside? Even now, formats used for archiving ten and fifteen years ago can no longer be accessed by new machines. As Facebook can testify, this issue of digital inheritance is much broader than writing and publishing of course. (An interesting side note about digital rather than ink–based archives is that when access is electronic, it no longer becomes tied down to geography or any local motivations, so I think it creates other questions about whose responsibility it is to maintain such archives.)
The job of ink - of writers, critics and publishers alike - is to get people to read and to continue to read. I love print and always have, and love writing books and owning books and having shelves of them and staring blankly at the artwork on the rows of spines when I should be writing myself. But whether that needs print-and-ink or screens in order to survive, I really don’t mind. What matters is the persistence of reading, of living the lives of others, of connecting with fictional people in order to better understand the real people in our lives as well as ourselves.
That for me is what must persist; that it continues to use ink is just a bonus.
Colloquium on the Contemporary, UCD, 26th February 2016.