Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

On the Possibility of Paper “Books”

The other day, I read, somewhere, about a new publishing technology that will supposedly allow people to use paper as a medium by printing words on what is essentially wood pulp—albeit, wood pulp distilled and refined and repackaged to be more amenable.

Some publishing companies are already courting writers in an attempt to embrace new technology, though not many actually can; it’s an expensive process that, in the long run, simply isn’t as cost-effective as using digital means for distribution. We all know paper pretty well—we carry it in our pockets as currency, use it to facilitate the exchange of goods with others in a way that allows indirect but possibly more objective valuation. It was always so difficult to figure out the price of a well-bred bison compared to that of a hand-hewn chair—nevermind the price of the transmission of data over the air to our electronic devices.

It seems to me, however, that the medium on which we print currency just isn’t suited for long-term narratives.

It should be noted here that the technology we’re discussing isn’t actually new; a couple of centuries ago, a man named Gutenberg tried to do the same thing with what he called a “press.”

It never took off. People liked to watch Shakespeare’s plays—not read them. It’s called “storytelling,” not “storywriting.” Why carry printed pamphlets and paper books when people could talk directly to each other to engage in social exchange?

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been instances that have required the recording of information in such form, but it’s never really taken off, in terms of general public consumption, until very recently, and now especially with adoption from these publishing companies.

The process is long and involved—unlike our current digital communication, which has the benefit of being instantaneous. As soon as we click our button, we can send our packets of information to each other.

That’s not the case with books. They are, essentially, wood pulp, which means that they begin their lives as trees. In the forest. Consider Stephenie Meyer, whose digital communiqués have inspired movies and millions of fans; to print the work so many people first read on their digital screens, one would have to deforest a huge swath of land.

Why print it? How much is going to be invested in felling trees and pulping them, printing them and binding them?

And then how will we get to them?

It’s easy now; we get our entertainment via our screeners. Little bursts of information packets we receive on the same devices we already use to talk to each other, play music, and watch videos.

These publishers, though, want us to go out of our way to get these bound packets of dead trees from stores dedicated to their sale.

Who would want to sell dead trees?

Consider that the cost of creation is not the highest hurdle. After someone has printed words on all that bound dead paper, someone has to send it somewhere, which is going to require precious storage in our railways, which will cost money and fuel. Then these stores—I suppose we’ll call them bookstores—will have to dedicate shelves to their sales.

And shelves are finite. Gone will be the days of infinite selection. These corporations intend to select creators themselves, which means many of us will be cut off from a huge amount of information—probably in favor of what corporations think will sell better. We all know other storytellers are simply better than Ms. Meyer, but will we hear from them?

What qualifications will these new businesses have for choosing what books to print? Will they print the ones that are well written, or the ones they think will sell?

And when they do sell, how much profit can they possibly make, given all that cost of creation and distribution?

When we do buy books, where do we propose to put them? We’re going to need bookshelves to take up space in our homes that might be better devoted otherwise. How will we travel with them? I sometimes read as many as five novels during a single beach vacation, but to carry those novels around in paper form—as opposed to stored on my screen—will take up much more room in whatever luggage I happen to use.

I just don’t get it. We have a remarkably efficient, cost-effective way to distribute stories and writing to our screens already; why on Earth would we want everything on paper? There’s even been talk that this new, “better” technology will ultimately supplant what we use now, but I, for one, will never give up my screen. I can’t imagine not carrying around all my information with me. I can’t imagine not having all my favorite stories available to me at the touch of a button. I love the scent of a new screen, and I love the lightness of my screen in my hand; it’s almost like it disappears completely, allowing me easier entrance into the world the words create. You let me know when people can print five hundred novels in a manageable amount of paper, or when our environment can legitimately accommodate the superfluous use of ever more precious natural resources, and I’ll let you know when I intend to start reading anything besides my screen.

1 Comment

  1. Nice.

    (And I know that’s a lousy comment, in and of itself, but really? You’ve said it all.)

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