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Will we continue to write “books” when there are no longer books?

For the first time, I have to admit that my conviction of a commingled print-digital future has seriously begun to wane. Over the course of the past 10 years, I have tried to argue against the either/or nature of the debate, both for practical reasons (I think this would be a bad thing) and for logical reasons (there are very few precedents in the historical record where this actually happens). And yet when this is all you hear on an almost daily basis it is hard for it not to become infectious, and ultimately persuasive. The discourse on media replacement gradually shifts into a fact about it.

The result is that I, like many others do doubt, are having serious doubts about whether I would continue to try to write books — if by that one meant they were eventually nothing more than long pdf’s. For some, this may be welcome news (yeah, no more titles with Gertrude Stein quotes in them!). The bad news for them, and the complicated news for me, is that I would like to go on writing. It’s just that now I have to spend more time thinking about writing non-books (a process I’ve already begun, as in this example here). Writing books is hard enough. Writing something for which we have little if any precedent, well, that’s exciting and depressing in equal measure.

My doubts about book writing were brought on by this very nice review in the Financial Times by novelist Andrew Martin called, “How we read,” which included a review of Book Was There. For Martin, much of the reward of writing exists not only in the mental process, but also the physical outcome, the beauty of the bookish container that reflects that process. I suspect this is true for many writers (it certainly is for me). When the press sent me a digital copy of Book Was There I had a decidedly different reaction than when I got the hard copy in the mail.

We have become so reader-centric (i.e. consumer-driven) that we spend less time thinking about what writers want (whatever we tell them, sayeth the public). I don’t know of many academics, to talk about just one small subset of writers, who would undertake the slog of writing 80-100,000 words and the research needed to do so, if all they got in the end was a pdf.

This means that we will either move to a largely article-driven environment, one that mirrors the sciences but that has perhaps a bit more formal breadth (from short bloggishness to medium-length kindle-singleness). Or we, at least some of the weirder of us, might also invest a whole lot more time thinking about web- and screen-based formats. Initially I thought this would mean the end of the synthetic work that books give us — the good ones are always more than the sum of a bunch of articles. This struck me as a serious loss to the landscape of knowledge.

But it more likely means this synthesis may just start to happen at a much larger scale. Maybe the problem with the book is that its ability to draw ideas together is unfit for the types of informational scale we now inhabit. What are the new media of intellectual synthesis going to be?

I’ll post next on what such a “multigraph,” as opposed to monograph, might look like.

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