I've not done academic research where I needed to digest a written piece and then write my personal responses in quite a while, but I enjoyed digging into the extract that this exercise asked me to explore with Chapter 7: The Future of the Book from David Finckelstein and Alistair McCleery's An Introduction to book history (2005).
I printed out the chapter as a physical booklet so that I could annotate it easier and began by reading and highlighting sections that stood out to me. I made notes on my thoughts in the margins as I read and absorbed each paragraph, then arranged them in my sketchbook so that I could easily review the key points from the text that I wanted to explore.
I found this chapter full of interesting ideas on what factors have contributed to the development of books and where this could lead to. As I had some issues with licencing printing this extract, the irony was not lost on me either as I could fully relate to seeing one of the advantages of printed books over digital editions! Regardless, this was a good basis for me to start looking for information on similar topics, including the more recent changes brought about in the book industry as a result of lockdown measures.
As I wrote my notes I also started thinking about what format I could best present my ideas in, before deciding to question of the future of books as a short article where I could give my own thoughts on where the book may end up in the future. Such an article would need an interesting leading image to link with, so I also set about making some rough ideas.
The chapter mentions science fiction as showing predictions of where technology could lead in the future and I as I thought about these themes of evolution I was drawn to the idea of reinterpreting one of the scenes from the Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Originally based on the short story The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke and later adapted into a screenplay and accompanying book alongside Kubrick, the film loosely follows the journey and evolution of mankind at various points in history. Although the film itself lacks books as a main plot device as most of the reading in the film is done from screens in its futuristic sequences, I feel it still resonates with the themes of the evolution, television and cultural development that the book has undergone.
The film generally leaving itself open to many interpretations due to its abstract visuals and limited dialogue, which gave me a bit of room to play around with meaning. I looked at which scenes I could transform and decided on one of the film's final climactic scenes, where the main character transition onto the next stage of existence. Lying in his bed, he looks towards the mysterious monolith that has appeared at each jump in mankind's development.
I had the idea that I could manipulate a screenshot from one of these scenes in photoshop, where I would substitute the monolith for a book cover, and add some of the other popular reading devices such as a tablet and a phone scattered around the bed, representing one of the most common places for reading as an activity.
I think this is a playful way of transforming the meaning of the scene using a piece of pop culture and I'm pleased with the simple but streamlined result to accompany what I've written about the future of the book. I've paired the final image alongside my thoughts on the topic of the future of the book below.
We live in an age where written content is readily available at our fingertips and more people than ever are reading using their phones, tablets or computer screens as a routine part of daily life. Science fiction has often predicted that new technologies will cause books to become the thing of the past, but what role does the traditional printed book play in the current technological age and how far will it continue to survive into the future?
A Brief History
In the ancient days of book history, the editing and public distribution of written content was mostly controlled by positions of power, such as governments and religious groups. As the general population in developing societies became more literate and book production technologies were steadily improved, a cultural shift over many centuries eventually led to the book becoming an essential part of modern society as common sources for both education and entertainment.
After the invention of the printing press kickstarted the commercial book publishing industry in the 1800's, the sudden developments in the speed and advancement of technology led to many writers to predictions of the eventual death of the book in favour of other competing advancements in technology, particularly as the digital age emerged in the 1980's onwards. Contrary to these predictions, publishers and authors have since found new ways to coexist with other competing forms of media in the digital age.
Survival and Evolution
As film and television industries have continued to grow in popularity in the 21st century, they have created new options for symbiotic relationships where entertainment franchises can span across multiple different forms of media, including the use of books as the inspirations for adapting countless stories onto the big and small screens, while still spawning spin off literature from other existing properties.
Books and publishing companies have also changed their approaches to now facilitate the online distribution of eBooks and audiobooks, each of which offer different experiences and functionality to traditional reading. Each form of written media comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages, offering people more choices than ever on how they want to design, write, publish, and read books based on their own personal preferences.
On the one hand, eBooks save space, are easily searchable and remotely accessible, along with raising issues for publishers regarding how to fairly licence the ownership of digital media. Audiobooks can bridge the gap between literature and theatre with different emotional impacts on listeners when an actor or the books author is reading the text aloud.
All digital forms still trade out the tactility and personality that physical books have always held and they remains a visually evocative object in our homes by carrying emotional attachments to readers through direct ownership. Titles on our bookshelves will be always be available and sharable offline and with reprinted translations, titles can reach audiences in countries that do not have access to the same online markets.
The Future Of Books
Since its beginnings as a genre, one of the common technological predictions of science fiction writers feature the eventual redundancy of physical books. As it stands today, although some predictions are becoming true as technology progresses, the death of the book has yet to be realised and the function of physical books as the definitive symbol for cultural knowledge remains an ever present theme in ways that technology cannot yet substitute for.
For designers as well as authors, the method of distribution has to be considered in informing the final product as much as the written context of the book already does. The content of books may be ever changing as new discoveries, opinions and narratives are written and released, but the variety of publishing options available today also leaves open to designers as they tailor releases for specific audiences.
Within the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the development of new approaches as the publishing industry has adjusted to cope. Some physical release windows have been held back and digital sales have increased as people find themselves with more time to read but less access to buy or loan physical books. However, despite the world being put on pause, it has given time for existing and new authors to find new inspirations, which could lead to a new burst of creativity in the publishing of new works moving forward as we emerge from the global pandemic.
The true future of books is hard to predict at this time, but as massive cultural and technological shifts in the past have not yet devalued the importance of books in society, I feel the future of the industry remains bright if both physical and digital media can continue to offer their own individual qualities that allow them to keep coexisting for a long time to come.
This was a really interesting research exercise that got me thinking about a lot of different aspects of books, although it's always tricky to narrow down and summarise a topic as large as this one in a balanced way without extending into long tangents of thought. I enjoyed manipulating an image to accompany it too and I feel that it's playful enough to support the text, without me focussing too much of my time developing a full illustrated work on this occasion.
Finklestein, D. , McCleery, A. Chapter 7: The Future of the book from Finklestein, D. , McCleery, A. An Introduction to Book History (2005) p.118-132
Mod, C. (2018) The 'Future Book' Is Here, but It's Not What We Expected https://www.wired.com/story/future-book-is-here-but-not-what-we-expected/
Nuwer, R. (2016) Are paper books really disappearing? At: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160124-are-paper-books-really-disappearing
Studeman, F. (2020) Light after the lockdown — the future of books At: https://www.ft.com/content/c1be60ec-8a2f-11ea-a01c-a28a3e3fbd33