Breaking up with the book

Feeling like a kid in a candy store, I entered the Washington Convention Center for Book Expo America 2006 to find aisle upon aisle wallpapered with books. Freshly unpacked from boxes, they displayed themselves like beauty queens on a stage waiting to be judged. Each greeted me with a glossy or matte face as I maneuvered my way down to Dana Press’s booth at the end of the very long aisle.

Despite the loss of circulation in my arms from carrying last minute oddities to our booth, the buzz of publishers like Random House, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster boosted my adrenaline. Walking up and down the aisles gazing at the booths of every publisher from A to Z, and the myriad number of books clothing each, it’s hard to imagine life without the book. I would feel naked. Thinking of my digital publishing class last semester, and the fervor at the show surrounding Amazon and Google’s quest to digitize every written word known to man, I find myself more and more disagreeable to the concept of uprooting the soul of the book from something concrete into something abstract. There’s a certain comfort, and, at the same time, excitement achieved when introduced to a new book. It’s almost like a first date. What does it smell like? What does it feel like? And, I hate to say it….but what does it look like? [see Ellen’s post below] There’s just something about this ritual that’s priceless—the act of actually turning the page and cozying up to something real and tangible is something that I’m just not ready to give up.

If I’m going to talk about keeping traditional books alive, we can’t forget about the authors who write them. A large component to Book Expo America is the author signings, breakfasts, and various panel discussions in which they partake. If books completely take form to a digital medium, readers will be completely disconnected from the authors. The personality of the text would be lost. Reading Monday’s Shelf Awareness (a free e-newsletter for those in the publishing industry), there was a post commenting on John Updike’s Saturday Book and Author Breakfast at BEA. Here, they relayed his disgust with the entire idea of digitization. At the Breakfast, he scoffed the May 14 New York Times Magazine article “Scan This Book!” which talked about the digitization of all texts—making them universally accessible to users, similar to current music sharing programs like iTunes or Napster. The post further quotes him calling the article’s vision “a pretty grisly scenario,” and a “throwback to a preliterate society where only a live person adds … value.” He predicted that authors will “soon be like surrogate birth mothers with seeds planted by high-powered consultants” with their works simply “dropped into the marketplace.” He calls much of the information available on the Web “unedited and inaccurate” with the traditional book being “more exacting and demanding of writers and consumers.” He closes his discourse, not with a plug for his new book, Terrorist, but with a plea to booksellers, calling them to “defend [their] lonely forts…” that “books are intrinsic to our human identity.”

Checking out at the exhibitor service desk on the final day of the show, I watched from the upper level as respective publishers hurried away from their once fully ornamented booths that they worked so arduously to put together. Seeing people left and right scurrying to catch flights and taxis, I hoped that this wasn’t a precursor to our relationship to the traditional book. I hoped that like a bad first date, we don’t pack up fast and leave our books behind.

– Allison Bush





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