Epstein on the future of books

October 5, 2006

The latest New York Review of Books, a special edition of which is produced for the book fair, carries an article by Jason Epstein, venerable founder of the NYRB and husband of crusading refusenik Judith Miller, entitled Books@Google (it´s also available online). A flavour of Epstein´s wonderful prose can be found in the following analysis of Google´s ´Don´t Be Evil´ motto:

The confrontation of founders who wish to do only good with the complex reality of their astonishing commercial achievement is an issue of biblical scope which calls to mind the expulsion, naked and trembling, of our ancestral parents from prelapsarian Eden into a world where choice is obligatory and error inevitable, a blessing and a burden upon themselves and what Milton called, with mixed feelings, their hapless seed.

The meat of the article, however, is not Google itself, but the possibilities of future book distribution. While Epstein sees the democratisation of knowledge as a good thing, and writes without the horror that Google Book Search evinces from other commentators, he also seems to be in no doubt that the future of the book remains rosy.

Epstein envisages a future where books will be stored digitally and available worldwide, but printed on demand from ATM-type machines at the point of need. He´s putting his money where his mouth is too, founding a company called, imaginatively, Books On Demand, which has already installed such a machine in the World Bank bookstore in Washington, D.C., with others due to come online soon in the New York Public Library and the Alexandrina Library in Egypt – the latter printing books in Arabic.

This is an exciting proposition, and refreshing from someone so bound up with the old school of publishing. Nevertheless, Epstein´s assertion that “Until human beings themselves evolve as electronic receivers”, consumers will prefer their reading matter to come in a format “indistinguishable from factory-made books, to be read as books have been read for centuries” seems short-sighted. It is a strange logic that assumes, all things being equal, that readers will prefer hunks of dead tree to a lighter, more flexible but otherwise indistinguishable electronic version – and that version is coming.

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