Friday, February 25, 2011

Fascinating Essay on the Future, History and Business, of Books

I will read (or listen) to anything by Paul Duguid. I stumbled on an excellent review essay by him the the Times (of London) Review of Books. Titled, "Do You Love Books? Jacques Bonnet does, (he can't stop buying them) -- but what's the future for the book business," the essay reviews three books. Duguid reviews Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson, (I love the cover! It's a Tower of Babel made of books); Publishing as a Vocation: studies of an old occupation in a technological era by Irving Horowitz; and The Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet (another interesting cover, with empty shelf space intriguingly "filled" with phantom books).

You can see I'm a sucker for good book covers! It's a shame that academic libraries remove the book jackets. I really like the plastic covers that allow public libraries to save and use the book jackets -- it makes the books much more attractive to readers than the plain buckram (or now, paper) bindings!

A brief apologia for the review:

From cards to chips, books come in many guises and the books under review help us to appreciate the range. John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture explores Anglo-American “trade publishing”, the canonical book business that offers advances in the millions and can be disappointed with sales in the tens and even hundreds of thousands. Irving Louis Horowitz's Publishing as a Vocation focuses on scholarly publishing, where citations can be as important as sales, and a thousand in either column lies beyond most dreams. Jacques Bonnet’s The Phantoms on the Bookshelves is the enjoyable confession of a “bibliomaniac”, a man who (like the bookseller in Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps) shelves books in his bathroom.

Together the three embrace the bundle of forms and genres on which the term book confers a spurious uniformity. They help us understand that books (like many objects of love), though easy to idealize, can be complex, contradictory and obdurate objects.
But Duguid, being who he is, does not confine himself to merely reviewing the three books, though he certainly does that. He takes the reader on a ride through the history and philosophy of books as he, himself understands it. This is why it's always worth reading Mr. Duguid! He considers, as he hints in that quote above, how protean in form books have always been, and continue to be. Far East users were among the latest adopters of the book form, who were the among the earliest print-users, but gave up scrolls very late to move to the codex form that we now call books. But Duguid points out that even now, different cultures print books in different directions: left to right, then top-down is hardly the standard. Israeli and Arab printers go right to left, sentences and make what we consider the "back" of the book the front. Traditional Chinese and Japanese readers read top down, sentences not across.

Duguid goes on to discuss the disagreements over where to place tables of contents, library binding and storage. He mentions horizontal storage in stacks compared to the vertical stand-up books we usually see. He goes on with some excellent comments about the flow of text and access, and how that affects current technology. Codices won the struggle for dominance over scrolls largely, I think, because they are so good for random access. You can open a book (a codex) in the middle of a chapter, to a pinpoint cite. With a scroll, on the other hand, you had to unroll it patiently to get to the point you needed. An analogy might be CDs compared to tape recordings. Duguid, however, quotes Peter Stallybrass who Directs the History of the Book, a center at the University of Pennsylvania, as pointing out that the unrolling of scrolls really was perfectly suited to the structure of the novel, while the codex was better for accessing other types of writing.

Duguid then ties that observation to the current technological developments on GoogleBooks, which scroll, versus JStor and ProQuest's Early English Books Online which turn pages more like a codex. He considers the uncertainty of the new e-book reading devices, such as Kindle, Nook, iPad and apps such as iBooks, GoodReader, Stanza about whether they are scrolling or turning pages. We are in a transition stage. Most of the e-books being sold right now are novels, I think, so maybe they need to scroll. But they have ambitions to enter the textbook market, so perhaps they need to retain a paging and hypertext function.

I think my favorite part of the essay is where Duguid considers the folks behind GoogleBooks. Librarians have felt more than a little defensive about this project. We have felt as though it were something we should have done ourselves, or been more proactive about, I think, and thus, have been more hostile than maybe is rational. But we also have some very real concerns about the project (see earlier blog posts by searching this blog for GoogleBooks or Google Books). But Duguid does not bring any of those concerns or emotions to the table, and he sees the Google folks as romantics and perhaps a bit naive about books. I feel a good deal better about the project if I believe Mr. Duguid, I must say.
I. A. Richards called the book “a machine to think with”, yet it is curiously resistant to technological standardization. That point escapes many digitizing technologists, who are not perhaps the anti-book boors as sometimes portrayed. (Several on the Google Books blog confess to loving books.) Rather they may be the last romantics, idealizing the book as a simple carrier of information and so one that submits unproblematically to their computer algorithms. When I asked a senior Google figure, who whispered advance notice of the firm’s scanning project some years ago, which books the firm would choose, he insisted they would scan them all. About the same time, when a librarian at one of the first libraries to work with Google offered one of their engineers access to their metadata, the engineer clearly had little idea what bibliographic metadata was. Only a romantic, with faith in the simplicity of books compared to the sophistication of computers, would take on such a task in such a way. (No doubt without such naivety, the task would never have been undertaken at all.)
I am a bit surprised in the review, to find that the book by Horowitz, a publisher of a small scholarly press, Transaction Publishers, and a professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, comes out with a manifesto of copyright absolutism. Horowitz
...fears equally large publishers and libraries. He denounces the former as monopolists, but turns more furiously on the latter. He is appalled at the idea of “open access” journals and fulminates that librarians have used the “fair use” provision of copyright law as “a battering ram for end running the major provisions protecting intellectual property”. He responds as a copyright absolutist. “Property is property”, he asserts and he has no time for “arbitrary and fictive distinctions between types of property”. The appeal is not entirely original – Mark Twain put the same point to Rudyard Kipling – but its success would entail a remarkable extension of authors’ and publishers’ power in the chain, an extension that most true monopolists (and Google, if the courts accept its proposed copyright settlement) would relish, and certainly one that needs robust justification.

Horowitz defends an interminable copyright by maintaining that scholarly publishing needs it and we need scholarly publishing, for its high standards are essential to a democratic society. Thompson also considers publishing’s contribution to the “public sphere”, but for him it is, refreshingly, an afterthought. For Horowitz, it is in the opening salvo (though rendered a little uncertain by later references to the “public square”). Publishing is the core of democracy, he argues, and its survival is under imminent threat. The implications of its collapse are “profound”. We ignore them “at our peril”, and so forth.
Well, you will enjoy reading the essay and Duguid's review of the three books, despite how angry you may get and Mr. Horowitz's sentiments. Fortunately (at least in my view), Duguid's opinion is that Horowitz's book fails to convince in many ways because of failings in its editing, writing, and design. Which is interesting in an editor's book. But cheer up, Duguid polishes off his essay with a wonderful bit of crystal ball gazing for the future of books and those who love them:
Though the form may change, the book chain itself is likely to continue to endure. For ultimately, it is a communication chain, and it is hard to believe our garrulous species will cease trying to communicate. We cannot communicate without a medium, and as new media develop, new authors will push at their edges to experiment in the sort of unplanned possibilities that make the best books. You cannot have art, as William Morris argued, without resistance in the material. Books have provided splendid resistance. But as long as there is a medium, there will always be resistance, and, with luck, art. So while we codex-bound bibliophiles may look with gloom on the future, new cultural forms worthy of the name “book” will develop in the digital world. And despite digital romantics, and though tweets and Facebook walls often do resemble Hallmark aphorisms, the new will surely be worthy of a love that stretches well beyond the greetings card.

The image of the book cover is Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson (from, the wonderful Tower of Babel made of individual books. And the image of a person inexplicably visiting with a camel is Paul Duguid's faculty photo from Berkeley's website


Betsy McKenzie said...

There seems to be a craze among these profs (Duguid and Stallybrass) to have their faculty photos show them in interesting places doing interesting things. Stallybrass seems to be mountain climbing in the Alps, perhaps. And I am fascinated by Duguid's shaggy camel. Where is he and what is he doing with that camel? And should I have the notorious photograph of myself in the sedan chair being carried up the Chinese "mountain" put up as my faculty photo? No student would recognize me!

waggish said...

It is a great review, and a shame to see Horowitz and Transaction reduced to what he wrote.