Photograph "Dirty Book" © Tom Benedek
The Los Angeles Review of Books launched two years ago today with Ben Ehrenreich's essay "The Death of the Book." We are republishing it to mark our two-year anniversary.
PITY THE BOOK. IT'S DEAD AGAIN. Last I checked, Googling "death of the book" produced 11.8 million matches. The day before it was 11.6 milion. It's getting unseemly. Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality. Their pages grow brittle. Their ink fades. Their spines collapse. They are so pitiful, they might as well be human.
The emphasis shifts with each telling, but every writer, editor, publisher, bookseller, and half-attentive reader knows the fundamental story. After centuries of steady climbing, book sales leveled off towards the end of the 1900s. Basic literacy began to plummet. As if television and Reaganomics were not danger enough, some egghead lunatics went and built a web — a web! — out of nothing but electrons. It proved a sneaky and seductive monster. Straight to our offices and living rooms, the web delivered chicken recipes, weather forecasts, pornography, the cutest kitten videos the world had ever seen. But while we were distracted by these glittering gifts, the internet conspired to snare our friend the book, to smother it.
The alarm at first built gradually. In 1999, Robert Darnton, writing in The New York Review of Books, consoled his readers that, all the grim prophecies notwithstanding, "the electronic age did not drive the printed word into extinction." The book seemed safe enough for a few years, in more danger from the avarice of the carbon-based conglomerates that ate up all the publishers, than from anything in silicon. Safe until the fall of 2007, when lady Amazon released her hounds. Within a month of the Kindle's debut, the New Yorker was writing of the "Twilight of the Books." (Cue soundtrack: all minor keys, moody cello.) The London Times worried that "the slow death of the book may be with us."
Last summer Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books than the paper kind. The time to fret had passed. It was Kindle vs. kindling. MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte — whose name is frequently preceded by the word "futurist" — declared that the demise of the paper book should be written in the present tense. "It's happening," Negroponte said, and gave the pulpy artifacts just five years to utterly expire.
None of this is new of course. Nor is it new to point out that people have been diagnosing — and celebrating — the book's imminent demise for generations. It is possible to regard much of Western avant garde poetry and prose as an extended argument with the bound pages from which literature would prefer to break free. In a 1913 manifesto, Filippo Marinetti (a futurist of the OG sort) called for "a typographic revolution directed against the idiotic and nauseating concepts of the outdated and conventional book." His insurrectionary program may now seem quaint — "on the same page we will use three or four colors of ink, or even twenty typefaces if necessary" — but Marinetti was not alone in rebelling against the uniformity imposed on language by the standard typeset page. Similar urges ran through most of the high modernists, certainly through Stein, Joyce, and Pound, and through the iconoclastic Am...read more