Faculty Forum: The End of the Book

By Donald Keesey

The booksellers at Amazon.com are inviting you to view a brief Web video touting the virtues of their e-book reader. Unlike its competitor from Sony, the Kindle 2 doesn’t pretend to look like a book. At eight inches tall by five inches wide and a third of an inch thick, it looks like what it is—a tablet. The screen displays a black text against a white background and the print can be adjusted to your comfort. If you’re still not comfortable, you can sit back, turn on the sound, and have the device read the text to you. This tablet is able to store fifteen hundred e-books, and users can wirelessly download any of Amazon’s tens of thousands of ebooks, magazines, and newspapers.

Of course you’ll have to pay for your portable library and for anything else you download from Amazon, and if you do manage to stack fifteen hundred books on your tablet, the costs will pile up. But meanwhile, Google and several university consortia are advancing toward their goal of putting all printed texts into digital form. I have no idea how the economics of all this will shake out, but I’m convinced that soon you will be able to sit down with your tablet and access the entire Library of Congress by pressing a few buttons. So accept the invitation to view the Kindle and you will see the future of reading.

You will also see the end of the book as we know it. I find this prospect decidedly bemusing, but I can’t decide which muse is directing. Is it Tragedy or Comedy? Surely Memory has her hand in as well. Those of us who have lived surrounded by books will have our physical and mental furniture radically rearranged. It is unsettling to imagine a world where books have virtually vanished and our great libraries have become museums. Already everything that gets printed is created first in cyberspace. Very soon only wealthy eccentrics will collect books printed on paper, like those Renaissance nobles who insisted on elegant handwritten copies even after printed texts became available.

But then, as that example reminds us, the book as we know it hasn’t been around forever. The book the classical world knew was a roll of papyrus. You would scroll it down or up and cut it to any convenient length. This was a great technological advance over the Babylonian clay tablet. Now we are returning to the tablet and we are again doing a lot of scrolling. We already have available at little cost a long roll of digital text. Sooner or later all the world’s texts will be woven into one endless roll, accessible on your plastic tablet any time, any place.

This weaving will save a lot of paper, a word that goes back to the ancients’ papyrus, the reedy plant they cut into strips and wove into flat sheets. Text itself can be traced to an Indo-European root that gives us both the Greek techne (art or skill) and the Latin texere (to weave). Now it has again become a verb, and some of us are texting all the time, even while driving. Our immaterial texts lack the fabric of fine papyrus, or even the texture of coarse newsprint, but that’s no matter because they have the virtue of being easily woven into that long scroll in cyberspace. This is the task of modern websters (feminine) and webbers (masculine), who ply their virtual looms to weave the World Wide Web. And a wondrous web it is. Soon, I predict, you will be able to prop your tablet before you, arrange the light and font to your taste, set your automatic scroll to your preferred speed, and—if you can resist turning over every word to see what’s underneath—read any text you want, hands free. The future of the book is definitely dim, but the future of reading looks to be (adjustably) bright.

Donald Keesey is emeritus professor of English at San Jose State University. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to [email protected] for guidelines. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.