The Anti-Internet

October 2011

A lot has been written already about the future of the book. And yet, the words keep flowing (sometimes in books, but most often in the online spaces we believe are drawing us away from books). We find the conversation interesting and important because there’s a sense that books are the receptacles of our shared culture: by sitting in a library and moving slowly from one tome to the next, we can get a clear sense of where we came from, who we are, and where we’re going.

‘The Book’ stands for more than the codex as a technology (multiple sheets of paper carrying printed text, stitched together, bound, and covered), but for every aspect of our culture books have touched. Those who don’t read books for leisure sometimes don’t get it, and can find the whole discussion tedious – after all, what does it really matter if the words we devour come in the form of pigments on cellulose pulp or backlit liquid crystals? Who cares if you, in the privacy of your own home, decide to go to bed with a paperback or a tablet computer? Isn’t it the words that are important?

Well, yes. But, as usual, there’s more to it. ‘The Printed Book’, as a kind of platonic entity, has come to stand for more than ink on bound quires of paper. The Book has come to stand for a certain way of engaging with our culture: a slow, deep, focused plod through enduring narratives and timeless knowledge. Rightly or wrongly, the internet has come to stand for the opposite: fast access, divided attention, rapid-fire response, perishable content, and a preference for easy-to-grok cat videos over challenging and stimulating work. The ‘death’ or ‘future’ of The Book is less about the future of the printed codex as a technology, and almost entirely about the future of ‘high culture’ The Book has come to represent: literature, scholarship, wisdom.

Those who want The Book to survive tend to want the internet to lose (even if they won’t readily admit it), but because there’s almost no chance of that happening, the electronic book has emerged, the result of a kind of Faustian Pact in which The Book’s soul has been sold to the internet in exchange for the promise of eternal digital life.

Nine out of ten books I read go through my Kindle, and it’s really not so scary. Those who have never seen a Kindle in the flesh are almost invariably surprised by how closely it resembles a book – the screen looks like cardboard, the e-ink is deliciously viscous (if I’m totally honest, I even like the smell). I don’t feel as though I’m missing anything.

And yet, while the Kindle apes the printed codex ninety percent of the time, there’s something claustrophobic about a world in which the entirety of our culture arrives through telephone lines and wireless networks. In which the library as we now know it is reduced to a series of computer terminals providing free access to the web.

Most days, my eyes move in a restless loop from the screen of my iMac to my iPhone to my iPad, such that when I close them shut, I can see the outline of a bright white rectangle that can take minutes to go away. And yet, what can I do? What can any of us do? The Printed Book offers the promise of a momentary escape from a creeping digital culture. To leave the internet for an extended period and engage with a printed book provides the ability to perceive our culture with a certain perspective unavailable to those constantly jacked in.

Perhaps unfortunately, as soon as you engage with digital culture, it’s extremely difficult to return to the way things were: the old way is too slow, too time-consuming. I’d love to read more books in print, just as I’d love to listen to records, write more letters, and paint with oils. But there’s no time: there are too many emails to send this morning, too many songs and videos to load into iTunes. In two decades, I’ve noticed the pace of my life quicken, and distance and depth diminish. I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs right now, and Jobs remarks at one point that the Western mind isn’t good at moving slowly: as soon as we reach a certain speed of thought, we find the concept of decelerating impossible. It’s testament to the complexity of Jobs’ character that his devices are both responsible for making deep reading difficult while at the same time enabling publishers to sell electronic books en masse.

‘The Printed Book’ stands for a very particular kind of journey: a journey across narrative terrain that takes significant time and effort. Most electronic books preserve that sense of ‘bookishness’, but the electronic medium stands for something different: effortlessness and immediacy. We’ll keep talking about the future of the book until this incongruity is resolved. Maybe this conversation is one we’ll be having for a while.