From the Roman Codex to the iPad

How’s this for human progress? It took about 4,000 years from the invention of writing to the Roman-era codex of bound pages replacing scrolls, 1,000 years from the codex to movable type creating printed books, 500 years from the printing press to the Internet—and only 25 years to the launch of the iPad.

Even Apple enthusiasts will concede that this somewhat overstates last week’s announcement of the tablet. But like the arrival of Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s tablet reminds us there is a digital revolution redefining the book.

At a time when other media markets from news to music are in disarray because of the new ways we consume information, the book is thriving. Books in their emerging forms make the best example so far of using print for what it does best, digital for what it does best, and both together for a dramatically new experience.

Book publishers have the business advantage that they are not dependent on advertising. This means they are in far less danger of losing revenues as they acquire more readers. University presses, for example, often can’t get distribution in larger bookstores, so they encourage sampling of books online to drive print sales.

One million books were published last year. Amazon stocks hundreds of thousands of e-books (six of 10 of its sales are now for the Kindle edition when it’s available), and Google is digitizing millions more, including ones out of print. Now the iPad promises color, real-time access and multimedia for the book experience.

The result is hard to predict, but Robert Darnton may be as good a futurist as any technologist analyzing the iPad. Mr. Darnton is director of the Harvard library, for decades a leading historian of the book, and author of “The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future” (Public Affairs, 2009).

“I’ve been invited to so many conferences on the death of the book that it must be very much alive,” he told me last week. “It’s misguided to think that one medium displaces another and we have a choice of either analog or digital. The history of communication is that new technologies reinforce rather than displace the old.” Scribes continued to copy books by hand for over a century after Gutenberg.

The mix of print and digital will get more interesting this year, with the launch of many new e-readers, including the Que and the Skiff. The iPad promises to integrate audio and video seamlessly, perhaps immersing us rather than further reducing our attention spans as most new media have. Why stick to text alone when other media can be incorporated into the book experience? Once-flat textbooks could be reimagined as multimedia teaching materials, and novels could come with animation.

Apple will try to catch up to Amazon, the leading force behind the renaissance of books. Amazon’s convenient online bookstores help people discover new books through highly personalized recommendations, and the Kindle lets people carry a library of digital books wherever they go.

“Every age is an information age,” Mr. Darnton says. “It’s just that information is organized in different ways.” Tablets, e-readers and print-on-demand books “will reinforce the printed codex and not displace it.” Analog and digital media are “complementary and not confrontational,” he says, rebutting what he calls a “colossal case of false consciousness that accompanies spectacular announcements like the iPad.”

In “The Case for Books,” he described the ideal book he imagined a decade ago. He envisioned a pyramid, with the top level a text monograph with links to supplementary essays. Readers could then “continue deeper through the book, though bodies of document, bibliography, historiography, iconography, background music, everything I can provide,” he wrote. “In the end, they will make the subject theirs, because they will find their own paths through it, reading horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, wherever the electronic links may lead.”

Technology is about to make real this sort of deep engagement with information. Mr. Darnton’s next book, “Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in 18th Century Paris,” will be a history of street songs in the French capital. There were no newspapers and half the population was illiterate, so news was spread by song. “Parisians wrote new verses to old tunes literally every day,” he says, “tunes being a great mnemonic device for spreading the word in a semiliterate world.”

He found the original tunes in the National Library in Paris and had a cabaret singer record them for a modern audience. These recordings can be incorporated with text to create a full information experience. Combined text and audio seems like a perfect offering for the iPad.

As technology rewrites what it means to be a book, we will raise our expectations for our information experiences, with implications potentially as significant as the move to printed books from scrolls.

L. Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal


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