Many books have been written about the future of the book, but the truth is that we still know little about the subject. The upshot of this paradoxical loop: the book has a glorious past and an unsettling present but, as for its future, we have no clear outlook, for the simple reason that it remains ungraspable.
It is, naturally, the snare of new communication technologies, combined with the recurring sensation that everything was better in the past, which fosters the idea that the book has entered into a twilight phase: its dismissal to the margins and ultimate disappearance seems inevitable. However, in contrast to other artefacts, the book seems to be putting up a reasonably effective self-defence; it has so far demonstrated a far greater level of resistance than that displayed – let’s say – by public telephone boxes in the face of their irreversible obsolescence. And this must be for a reason – or so we like to think.
Will the book survive, will it experience a digital resurrection, or will it lose all the importance that it has so far managed to retain? This issue has prompted an animated global conversation, which still seems far from any resolution, but is already characterized by certain clichés and commonplace observations. Thus, some invoke Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s fable about a future society in which all books are burnt, to warn of the risks of cultural desertification – although it isn’t clear whether those who cite the story have read the novel or seen the film. Elsewhere, hymns are sung to the intrinsic features of the book as an object, from the scent of ink to the yellowing of its pages, in order to denounce the impersonality of e-books. And the Borgesian metaphor of a universe converted into a library is employed to describe how the Internet functions and proclaim confidence in the new technologies. Categorical arguments and false truths abound, particularly among those wishing to sell books by announcing the death of the book. In short: confusion reigns.
If there is any cause for speaking of the crisis of the book, it is the appearance of new artefacts capable of rivalling it by fulfilling the same functions in a more effective manner. That is, new containers of text that have the same or greater capacity in terms of storage, portability and ease of use as paper books. The gradual development of tablets and e-readers, which will soon overcome those initial technical hitches that sometimes give cause for complaint, poses precisely this kind of threatening novelty; threatening, naturally, from the point of view of the traditional book. Of course, if history teaches us anything, it is that revolutionary changes have come about in the wake of technological innovation. This does not imply that the solution to social conflicts has to be technological, but rather something else: that great transformations are associated with technology. This applies especially to those transformations related to a decisive social function, such as the manner and speed with which we communicate with one another and communicate ideas. From this point of view, even if new information technologies cannot rival the impact of the wheel or the steam engine, nor even probably the influence exerted by photography or television, they represent a qualitative change in the means of interaction between individuals and of archiving information that has a powerful effect on cultural and symbolic production – and, in addition, facilitates the emergence of a global sphere of communication.
Nevertheless, it seems too early to draw any definitive conclusion as to the precise impact that these new information technologies may have on the book as we know it. For Robert Darnton, we are living in a period of transition, in which printed and digital means of communication coexist and quite a number of technological novelties will become rapidly obsolete. Therefore, the publishing industry does not know what to focus on, nor what direction to take. The British author Neil Gaiman declared recently to The Guardian that the publishing industry is like the legendary Klondike of the gold rush days: “Nobody knows what’s going on. All they know is that there’s gold in them thar hills and they want to try to get hold of it.” There is therefore a proliferation of labels intended to describe a promising future and which, let’s admit it, sound better in English: open feedback publishing; fan fiction; social mobile geotagging, and digital first. We are moving towards an unknown destination. Katharina Teusch expressed this well in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “The book of tomorrow is the non-book of today.” But there may also be another possibility: that we have lost any sense of direction whatsoever. Responding to the discontinuation of the print edition of Brockhaus, a German encyclopaedia equivalent to the Britannica or Larousse, Christopher Caldwell observed in his column in the Financial Times that, contrary to what some believe, there is still nothing to guarantee the continuation of these books’ content in digital: “Whatever dies in the bricks-and-mortar realm must blossom anew in another. That is a superstition.” And if it is, then the traditional book could well disappear.
For this to happen, the readers of books would have to dwindle away too. That they are already doing so, or soon to do so once the generational shift is complete, is the thesis of the techno-pessimists who see in the use of new technologies the risk of a cognitive deterioration that will eventually carry the book away with it. In this view, the hyper-connectedness of individuals through the Internet, reinforced to the point of delirium by smart phones, will modify ways of life and reading habits, depriving us of the concentration and sense of continuity required in order to read books at all. This will likely undermine the residual appeal that books have retained up until now, even in the face of popularization of radio and television. At least, this is what authors such as Nicholas Carr or Andrew Keen claim, who have been stressing for some time that not only are we reading less but also less well, that is, more superficially. This argument can already be seen in the title of Carr’s latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and expresses an intuition that is perhaps widely shared: that the way one reads on digital devices, characterized by rapid skimming, the activation of hyperlinks and multi-tasking, is undermining the in-depth and sustained attention that for centuries has defined the culture of the book. And, if this is in danger, so too, potentially, is the culture that has flourished around it. Here in Spain, Ignacio Domingo Baguer highlighted in his recent Para qué han servido los libros (“What books have been good for”), “the importance that reading and the book hold for the development of the western concept of individuality and rationality – that is, for a certain idea of what constitutes our condition as human beings that is part of the basis of western culture and that could also be endangered by the loss of the culture of the book.” However, is this a definite risk, or only a hyperbolic assertion of lovers of books and representatives of this particular culture? Are we faced here with the umpteenth example of the kind of automatic conservatism generated by the passage of time and related social changes? Or is the alarm justified because, this time, the barbarians really have arrived at the gates?
Before going any further, it will be useful to ask what the figures tell us. For the easily made affirmation that we are reading less or reading less well has yet to be confirmed by empirical evidence: and unless it is confirmed in this way, the argument will have to be changed. We should not lose sight of the fact that those who hardly ever read rarely lament the fact that people are not reading; this complaint generally comes from those who are consummate readers themselves, and therefore have a propensity to experience an optical illusion regarding the decline in the numbers of their equals. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find reliable and extensive data on a matter regarding which, furthermore, those questioned in surveys often lie; a couple of surveys published in Great Britain recently on the occasion of World Book Day revealed that 61 per cent of the sample said that they had claimed to have read a book that they had not actually opened, like 1984 or Ulysses, in order to conceal their reading of J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. According to the same survey, more than half the readers wish to write a book themselves, and 11 per cent have even completed a manuscript. There’s no Socrates without a Plato! But perhaps the sentiment is misplaced, given that women wanted to write mystery novels, and men science fiction or fantasy novels. Beyond these engaging observations, however, we find ourselves up against a great tangle of opinion surveys generally carried out separately in different countries and oriented towards measuring different things. Thus, the fact that a person declares him or herself a reader tells us little if, in order to be considered as such, it is enough to have finished five books in a year – without knowing which books, the degree to which these books were understood or what personal benefit the reader gained from them.
Broadly speaking, it could be concluded that we do not read less than in the past, but rather that more people read rather more, without this meaning that they read very much – established minorities of book devotees aside. At the same time, reading comprehension is in decline, in what may be a statistical effect of the increase in the overall number of readers, or a consequence of the more superficial style of reading denounced by the techno-pessimists. It also seems to have been established that children read more than adolescents and young people, that is, that children read less when they cease to be children, and dedicate themselves to other things that previously were no doubt forbidden to them. For example, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, American children between the ages of eight and 18 dedicated 21 minutes a day to reading books in 1999, compared to 25 in 2010. Membership of book clubs and reading groups has also increased within the same age group, while no one can accuse the young of not reading long books: the Harry Potter or Twilight sagas go on for thousands of pages. It is more doubtful that this kind of reader will take the next step that leads them on to Proust. According to figures from 2012, 37.9 per cent of Americans read books as a leisure activity in that year, making it a practice occupying a worthy position in the list of favourite forms of entertainment: behind going out to eat and having friends over to visit, but slightly ahead of the proverbial barbecue. Significantly, fewer than 25 per cent of Americans said they were reading a book when asked in 1957; by 2005, this percentage had increased to 27. The number of readers using digital devices has also increased.
In Europe, we Spaniards find ourselves, as usual, at the back of the queue, among the countries with the lowest number of readers, together with Portugal and Greece. This in contrast to the abundance of readers in the Nordic countries and Great Britain. Indeed, the OECD observed that the best level of reading comprehension is to be found in Finland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. In Spain, according to the annual “Barometer” surveys on reading habits that the national publishers’ federation publishes, around half the population declare themselves readers: not that this, once again, tells us much about what kind of readers they may be. And lastly, there are figures that one doesn’t know quite what to do with, such as the fact that 68 per cent of the Spaniards who read e-books have obtained them in pirated form, or that only seven per cent of the Americans who read books chose them as a result of reading a review.
These figures are inevitably inconclusive, and reveal tendencies rather than certainties; we are, genuinely, in a moment of transition. However, it may perhaps be useful to introduce a little more order into this conversation, in order to know, at least, what we are talking about.
Are we talking about reading books or reading per se?
We are concerned over the future of books as a form of transmission of knowledge and for the formation of individual consciousness, due to the special value we attribute to them as instruments, but it is a fact beyond doubt that today an ever greater number of people know how to read throughout the world, and that the explosion of the Internet and its derivatives makes us read more often, not less. We spend our days reading diverse sources of information and checking messages from friends, to whom we are also continually writing (to the point that the old-style telephone call has become a violent act that requires special justification). In this context, books are only one container of information among many, and cannot play the same role as when they had no rivals. It would seem difficult, for obvious reasons, for the book ever to recover this position, if it is indeed the case that it once held it, so that we’re not just suffering from the illusion of a golden age of the book situated in some vague time in the past. Something of the latter can be seen in the pretentious silliness with which book culture is publicly celebrated, especially in Spain, where, mysteriously, reading a novel is equated with contemplating a rose, even when this novel recounts to us the dimensions of the Stalinist gulag. However, it is not a matter of clinging on to the cultural form represented by the book, but of considering whether the book’s functions are inherent in its form or can be fulfilled in an analogous manner by other media, by other forms of transmission of knowledge and experience.
As to the quality of reading in this new form, the accusations of superficiality may perhaps be justified. If reading is discontinuous and subject to multiple distractions, concentration is reduced and so too is the capacity to understand complex texts. Is this a tragedy, one that will cause harm to society as a whole, or is it simply a form of damage that can be evaluated in humanist terms? Steven Johnson, in his review of the previously mentioned book by Carr in the New York Times, maintained that a critique of superficial reading cannot ignore the elements that are gained by multi-tasking activity, that is, a greater variety and quantity of interconnections with others that produce unquestionable individual and collective benefits. If we end up reading fewer books, but knowing more, do we then gain from the change? Michael Suarez, Director of the University of Virginia Rare Book School and editor in chief of the Scholarly Editions series at Oxford University Press, laments that the diffuse reading habits encouraged by the web may lead to the incapacity to make sense of an overabundance of information; yet, without this same web I would never have encountered his opinion in the online edition of the University of Virginia review. We are faced here once again with the difficulty of discerning whether we mourn the passing of the well known or the valuable, and whether the prospect of a different society is necessarily bound up with a judgement as to its desirability based on the standards that prevail in ours.
Are we concerned about the reading of books of any sort whatsoever, or knowledge of fundamental titles?
Talking about book-reading in general, as one tends to do when one romantically celebrates literary culture, presupposes leaving aside certain fundamental variables regarding precisely what is being read; to speak of a metaphorical book that includes all books is not very useful. Is it better to read Fifty Shades of Grey than to subscribe to the Financial Times or Die Zeit? The reader of the quality press is surely not a reader of bad novels and, if we consider the question in terms of the general benefit to democratic society, informed citizens are preferable to consumers of mass literature. In other words, the type of book we are discussing makes a difference when considering the benefits of its being read. However, what does “better” mean in this context? Should we wish to measure the happiness of the reader, there is probably no difference between the satisfaction obtained by readers of the Financial Times and those of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. What is it that we are defending when we defend the book, what are the functions it possesses that we wish to preserve?
The fact is, if we adopt a utilitarian point of view disconnected from common, collective interests, then there is nothing to prevent us from placing a game of boules, a videogame and a piece of classic literature all on the same level, since all of them give satisfaction to those who experience them; as does, once they have finished it, a lengthy siesta. The book is the emblem of humanist society, a central instrument of this culture and the faith in progress that characterizes it. Really? At this point, the party-pooper arrives who reminds us that the executioners of Auschwitz read Goethe and listened to Schubert while Jews were annihilated in the gas chambers next door. Which is true; but so too is the point that this is a false and misleading argument. The greater the number of informed citizens and educated readers, the richer a society is and the more sophisticated its public debate – and the lower its propensity to collective disfunction. One can also be happy under a coconut tree in the Caribbean on the margins of History, as the essayist Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio pointed out in his Mientras no cambien los dioses, nada ha cambiado (“So Long as the Gods don’t Change, Nothing has Changed”), but it is hard to contest the point that we now live in societies that, while far from being perfect, are the most just and prosperous ever seen. Now, the question of the particular role of the book in this progress is a different matter. The Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid has observed sarcastically that “to believe in books as a means of action or not is above all that: a matter of believing or not believing”. And he adds:
One thing is the importance of certain books and authors, another their fame, another the actual sales of copies, another the amount they are read, another the assimilation and dissemination of their content, another the causal connections between all these previous phenomena […] and features observable in social behaviour.
The book is, to a certain extent, a symbol – but it is also an instrument. It is an instrument of humanistic domestication, a means of transmission of knowledge that seems to appeal to reason more than the purely oral transmission of illiterate societies. That said, bad ideas are also contained in books: the Protocol of the Elders of Zion is as much a book as the penal code that lays down penalties for incitement to racial hatred. For this reason, to speak of “the book” in the singular, without being more specific, does not make much sense: we should instead speak openly of the humanist culture of the book, in its different incarnations and manifestations, as a form of culture that seems to us more beautiful, more useful and worthy of being preserved – if it is the case that its preservation can be decreed. We readers desire the generalization or dissemination of a culture in which the book plays a central role, with, if possible, a special mention for our favourite authors. But it is not clear that the world is going in that direction.
Are we defending the book or the book world and its aesthetics?
In an interview given to the New York Times, contemporary musical prodigy Kanye West spoke eloquently of his own significance, comparing himself with Steve Jobs and declaring that “I understand culture. I am the nucleus”. And he’s right! However, we’re not talking here about high culture, but a popular culture that is ever more indistinguishable from high culture. How many readers of Balzac know who Kanye West is? Does Kanye West know who Balzac was? Probably not, but if instead of Balzac we were to mention Thomas Pynchon, who has got as far as appearing in an episode of the Simpsons and having one of his novels adapted for the cinema by Paul Thomas Anderson, the answer might be yes. In this regard, John Stuart Mill’s reflection on the higher and lower pleasures has not lost its validity: the British philosopher argued that only those who are familiar with both can judge them comparatively. And this remains the case. Though the videogame player thinks the reader of Hegel is bored to death, the reader of Hegel can in fact enjoy videogames. Maybe he or she won’t, but they can choose.
What is happening at the moment is this: the social conditions that facilitate the production of exemplary readers are disappearing – or at least becoming ever more difficult to reproduce. The dynamics of the formation of taste operate slowly, via diffuse forms of transmission and learning. Of the two children of a parent who reads, one will inherit a taste for books and the other will not, while the child of a gentleman who doesn’t read will end up becoming a passionate consumer of literature. In general, homes with books produce homes with books more easily, but the competition that the book faces at the beginning of our century makes the long after-dinner reading sessions that create a lasting habit less frequent. We should not underestimate the intrinsic attractiveness of social networks, broadly considered; if David Foster Wallace left us with the thought that books serve to mitigate solitude, what better way can there be of not being alone than being with others. Again, it is difficult to decide whether the solitary adolescent gains more by identifying with Holden Caulfield or chatting with friends, unless we attribute an inherent value to the western cultural and literary tradition. This we can do, just as we can decide that there are better or worse ways of passing the time. But we cannot expect that, if we do so, then our neighbours will necessarily get our jokes about Perec when we pass them on the stairs. For perhaps the odd ones are us, not them. The world of books, nourished and self-sustained by books themselves, and converted into a status symbol for those who follow it, is irredeemably losing its vigour, as society becomes more democratic and, perhaps, more banal. Nevertheless, it will continue to be cultivated by significant minorities, at least for some time.
Is the book being displaced to the margins by new technologies?
The relationship between the book and information technologies is not limited to the simple swallowing up of the former by the latter. It is much more ambiguous, and includes quite a number of benefits for the book and for readers. There is no doubt that the appearance of these technologies, like the appearance of radio and television previously, has reduced the importance of the book and other printed forms as a means of transmitting of knowledge and the object of a pastime. It is enough to see any film adaptation of a nineteenth-century novel to be aware that the book then constituted the monopoly pastime of the literate classes; there was, literally, not much more to do if one wanted to do something productive. Moreover, even for those who did not read or declared their intentions to read some day without finally ever doing so, the book still provided the habitual cognitive horizon. Today, it is only one of several forms of transmission of information and emotions available to the average citizen. Hence the book cannot maintain its central role, even if one wished it to do so.
However, it’s not all bad news for the production, distribution and consumption of books. Seeking them out, finding them, reading them is today easier than ever. This is not only applicable to the new e-book, but to the traditional book as we know it, rare examples of which can be tracked down through online services as powerful as Amazon or, in Spain, IberLibro, where one also often finds unbeatable prices (above all if one reads in English). It is also easier to find information about their authors, share opinions and read critical reviews.
On the other hand, the transformation of the habits of readers does seem to be affecting two traditional symbols of book culture: bookshops and libraries. Although the latter will not lose their role as archives, with respect to which they have received a significant new task in the form of digitalizing their current stocks, they now face a range of problems when it comes to establishing new relationships with their members and with the publishers that provide them with their stocks. If the digital book eventually enters into general use, will libraries still be necessary? If the pirating practices that have undermined digital sales are extended to copies downloaded from a library, will publishers have any interest in supplying the libraries with books? Will libraries’ budgets be maintained when their numbers of users diminish? As for bookshops, they still enjoy a decent level of health, but are showing signs of deterioration. If consumers can buy paper books at lower prices from online distributors or the online services of the bookshops themselves, and buy their electronic books through electronic means, actual bookshops will lose part of their purpose. Jonathan Burnham, vice president of HarperCollins, told the New Yorker that a bookshop contains an element of chance, of going on a quest and making unexpected discoveries, that it would be a pity to lose. However, it’s not clear that this is the best argument for defending bookshops in the face of the Internet: anyone who has browsed through Amazon will be familiar with the experience of finishing up in a very different place from the one in which they began. On the other hand, it will probably be the bookshops that have a certain sense of continuity, and their own criteria for selecting books, which are most likely to retain their role and their customers in the near future – even though these are also the shops that find it hardest to offer competitive prices.
To some extent, the emergence of new technologies is a blessing for veteran readers. They can draw on the benefits that advances in digital platforms have provided, the abundance of information and the best available prices. And the same, though with greater advantages still, can be said of the reader of the press or of magazines. However, this group occupies the centre ground in a continuum where, at one end, we can place readers who have not managed to familiarize themselves with digital media and whose reading and information-gathering habits remain intact. In Spain, this means a sector that ranges from the readership of the conservative daily ABC to the subscribers of the Círculo de Lectores book club. At the opposite end, we would then place the young, who socialize in a cultural context created by the “new” technologies that have been part of their lives from the beginning. The future of the book will, to a considerable extent, depend on the relationship that the latter group establish with digital and paper books. And so too, to a great extent, will the form that books take.
Will we continue to talk about the book, period, or will the book have to become a book with prefixes and adjectives?
No conversation on the future of the book can leave aside the question of the form it will take: that is, what happens to the book on paper, what format emerges from technological developments, to what extent the book of the future will still be recognizable as such for traditional readers. James Warner has published a sarcastic piece in McSweeney’s on the future of the book, describing what it can be expected to look like around 2020:
Future “books” will be bundled with soundtracks, musical leitmotifs, 3D graphics and streaming video. They’ll be enhanced with social bookmarking, online dating, and alerts from geo-networking apps whenever someone in your locality purchases the same book as you – anything so you don’t have to read the thing. Authors will do their own marketing, the reader will be responsible for distribution, the wisdom of crowds will take care of the editing, and the invisible hand of the market will perform the actual writing (if any). Writers will respond either by going viral or going feral.
For his part, the neurolinguist Horst Müller has speculated, in a conversation with Die Zeit, on the possibility that the book of the future may come equipped with sensors, a camera and apps connected to the Internet, so that it can inform a traveller of any relevant monuments that are nearby. We will even, he suggests, be able to talk to books. Perhaps we may not need to go so far, but, in the same way that the film industry started to think a few years ago that either the future would be 3D or the film industry would cease to exist, publishers may be tempted to think that the book has to exploit every existing or future digital possibility in order to attract the young – or simply succumb to the lure of doing something rather than nothing.
However, are these artefacts a book, or what we understand a book to be today? Probably yes, if they fulfil the old functions of the book or improve upon them. Once again, it’s not much use speaking of books without making further distinctions, because a travel book has a different purpose from a book of poetry, a manual of macroeconomics or a guide to German grammar. Technological contrivances make more sense for some than for others. As to the difference between the paper book and the electronic one, we have already mentioned earlier that sensuous aspects are a significant matter for the reader accustomed to the former: its smell, response to the touch, its quality as a fetish. There are also other aspects of the book-object that are connected to its use, such as the dimensions of its content, its physical size, the ease with which the reader can go from one page to another or underline things and take notes. It is hard to know, nevertheless, whether we are attached to these characteristics out of habit or because of their inherent value; and, therefore, whether the electronic book really amounts to less than the book on paper and, if so, why.
Theodor Adorno, severe as only he could be, lamented the appearance of the paperback because of the effect it would have on the content of books and their institutional status. He feared that a symbolic devaluation would collapse the distinction between mass culture and the higher realms of knowledge. From this point of view, digitalization would be a further reinforcement of the technological reproducibility of art, with reference to the famous essay by Walter Benjamin on the loss of the “aura” possessed by original works of art in modernity. Remarkably, the paper book could be the vessel that is charged with conserving this aura in a future dominated by electronic books, in a similar way to the manner in which the reappearance of vinyl records gratifies the nostalgia of music lovers. Some people also still send postcards! We would find ourselves then with an object that is considered valuable, irrespective of its practical function, valuable, that is, more for aesthetic reasons than cognitive ones. Michael Agresta has referred to this possibility in the pages of Slate: “As it loses its traditional value as an efficient vessel for text, the paper book’s other qualities – from its role in literary history to its inimitable design possibilities to its potential for physical beauty – will take on more importance.” This aura, though, will be for those who can and want to pay for it; for everyone else, there will be the digital book. However, this still remains a distant prospect, for the world is full of paper books: they will not disappear tomorrow.
Alongside all these considerations, we have the dilemmas of the industry. What kind of book should they opt for and gamble their future on, what kind of margins can be preserved, what can one learn from the digital impact on other cultural industries, like music or cinema? Here too, a vague sense of uncertainty reigns. Russell Grandinetti, an Amazon executive, has told the New Yorker that the real competition is no longer between paper books and electronic books but between books in general and the other activities – watching television, checking the net, videogames – that are battling for the public’s leisure time. His diagnosis appears to be correct: to expect that the singular cultural and symbolic status of the book can help preserve it is perhaps an expression of voluntarism that leads nowhere. To say nothing of a culture of open access, which is particularly strong in Spain, and complicates things further.
The impossibility of a conclusion
Rather more than one single discernible future, the book seems to have many possible futures, without it being at all possible to discount the prospect of its future ultimately being a combination of the different possibilities contained in the present situation. Some aspects can be predicted with a certain degree of certainty: electronic books will win more readers, academic and professional books will be electronic in format, the paper book will take a long time to disappear and perhaps may not ever do so. However, there are many more that it is still too early to foresee. And the behaviour of the younger generations who have been socialized in direct contact with new technologies continues to be a mystery.
If the truth be told, the survival of the book in an increasingly technology-dominated context already contains an element of incongruousness. However, this very fact, properly considered, tells us much about the book’s usefulness. And also, if you will, about its power of seduction; the literary and cultural world that revolves around books continues to hold its attractions, and there will always be minorities fascinated by Nabokov and literary cafés. It is perhaps a pity that these minorities have not become majorities, but the Enlightenment dream of social refinement advances at a pretty imperceptible pace. And the very plurality of liberal societies contains a plurality of fascinations; from the existentialists to philately, via hiking and DIY. We can say that the book will continue to occupy some kind of position in the very broad range that is on offer, whether as an auxiliary instrument or an end in itself, and whether in traditional or electronic form.
On the other hand, the book seems condemned to lose some of its prominence in public debates, a position that has never been wholly guaranteed. There are books that have characterized an era, because the ideas they contain have recast public discussion, directly or indirectly: Fukuyama’s The End of History, Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Pinker’s Blank Slate. The book continues to be the most suitable format for the careful development of arguments and their reception by readers. However, this is another area for the minorities who produce such books and read them: the subsequent task of disseminating and expanding upon these theses belongs to the mass media. It is foreseeable that books will increasingly become just one more communication medium in a society characterized by a super-abundance of means, forms and practices of communication.
It is difficult to give any more details of the future, without resorting to fantasy or dogmatism. When one looks at the prospects for the book, two forces enter into conflict: the temptation of pessimism and the consolation of optimism. It is possible that we are advancing towards a different society, one with its own standards, neither better nor worse than the one we have now, and that the role of the book in this society will be marginal or non-existent. However it is also possible, and even probable, that this future society will not be as different as we have become accustomed to imagine: and that the book, whatever its technological underpinnings, will retain a certain role and a certain importance. It’s impossible to know. The future of the book is in the future.