THE LONG-PLAYING RECORD ALBUM AND THE BOOK are the two great "dying" cultural forms of the early 21st century. Assailed on all sides by digital piracy, global economic turmoil, and unexpectedly mercurial consumer bases, the two have been in critical condition for a decade at least. But, as natural as it is to compare them, these twin terminal cases are essentially different. The album is a much newer arrival on the scene (the first LP appeared in 1948, the first book in the seventh millennium B.C.), and also seems to be passing away much faster: dying young, as it were. In one sense, the latter isn't ailing at all; while books have certainly gone and will continue to go digital, there have been few serious challenges to the Book as Form. Even ebooks are, for most phenomenological intents and purposes, books, and no one seems terribly eager to overthrow the tyranny of the 40-to-60,000-word chunk of text, divided into sections and justified with margins.
The Album as Form, on the other hand, really is in trouble; not only are albums not selling to casual fans in anything like the quantities they once did (with the exception of outliers like Adele), but even serious, deeply committed listeners are less and less inclined to organize their consumption of music into roughly 40-minute chunks, preferring their units of attention shorter (the single track) or longer (the stream or playlist). This is not a sudden change, though it is a lately accelerated one: AM radio begat the mix tape begat the iTunes playlist begat musico-social networks like Spotify and This Is My Jam.
Still, hardly anyone denies that the Album as Form is a useful, even necessary, organizing concept for both music criticism and everyday fan discourse, if only for historical reasons. If past practitioners thought of their work as oriented toward the 10- or 12-song value pack, then it makes sense that we should, too, the same way we struggle to get our heads around 17th-century sonnet sequences. The more interesting question is: what will happen to such notions as the contents of our musical archive become increasingly atomized. Do we need the idea of the whole in order to appreciate the parts?
The modest success of Continuum's 33 1/3 series seems to argue that we do, at least for now. Since 2003, the series has provided a momentary stay against the confusion of a world without albums. (There is an irony, of course, in the joining together of these two dying forms: is this supposed to help the album's prospects? Or is it like pouring water on a drowning man?) The form of the 33 1/3 book, like that of the album itself, is at once expansive and rigidly defined: a book-length essay on a single LP or CD (phonomonograph?), most often written by a music journalist or academic, comprising some combination of personal testimony, cultural history, "close listening," and trivia. (Only the last element is indispensable.) The quality of individual titles has been all over the place, partly as a side effect of overproduction (there have been 86 titles in the past eight years, with five more planned for the spring in addition to Lethem's), but the best — by writers such as Carl Wilson, Daphne Brooks, and the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle — have realized the format's possibilities in varied and surprising ways.