In a Thai village, a few years ago, I sat in a little, outdoor bar in the heat of the afternoon, drinking a cold beer. Sitting next to me, a villager, a farmer, taking a break. Between my broken Thai and his fractured English, we devised a reasonable conversation. At one point, he reached into his shoulder pack to get a cigarette and a book fell out. It was a paperback, yellowed and dog-eared. He told me it was a novel by a famous Thai writer and he carried it around with him for the past 20 years. Why? Because the book was a friend, which made the writer a friend and they were always there when he needed them. He smiled when he said that, and so did I. There was nothing embarrassing about the moment and its intimacy.
Recent surveys show that less than 45% of the U.S. population read books (or magazines or newspapers, for that matter). The numbers are similar in Europe and much lower in many other countries. The obvious and most demeaning factor is the explosion of media—the pixel is replacing the ink drop.
The Internet, in its quick-fix, here-and-there way of comprehension doesn't lend itself to reading books. Despite Amazon and Sony, the experience of reading a book on a screen is like dining alone in a delicious Italian restaurant—the intimacy of sharing is missing, in this case, the sharing of your mind with the mind of the writer. You can't get through the glass. As with all screen media activity, you're passive, sitting there, staring as the display takes you along. With a printed book, you can touch each page with its not-perfect paper and its not-perfect ink. To experience a printed book, you have to join it, it doesn't do it for you the way a screen image does. You and the writer talk to each other and share, almost as if you and the writer were the same. You don't need an on-off switch or batteries or protocols or rules. You just need light and quiet privacy. And if you're visually impaired, you have the voice of a reader, holding a book, almost as if it were the voice of the writer.
This may all seem a bit odd coming from me as you read what I write on a screen. Scene4 is an electronic publication, designed as a print publication but presented only on the web for the past eight years and not by choice. A few years ago, a group approached Aviar proposing investment financing to take this magazine into printed distribution. Given its large readership and the idiosyncrasy of its content, they believed that it should have a printed edition (to preserve its "intimacy") and that it would make a profit (which was equally important to them). After much discussion and some irreconcilable editorial differences, they realized that only 50% of the readership was in the U.S. and reading was on the decline. It deserved a print edition, said they, but who would eventually read it?
I don’t mean this as a "luddite" tainted treatise—I find evolution and the evolution of technology exciting, thrilling and rich with hope and a vista of personal freedom. And I believe that the book will evolve and maintain its place as one of the grand devices of human history. To that I offer a vision. It's not just science fiction. Isn't all science – fiction - until it's not? Just think of describing a movie to Cicero or a cell phone to Alexander Pope.
In the relatively near future, you will be able to hold and read a book, page for page, printed in a medium that will allow you to make your book as small or as large as you like and with any material feel you desire. It will be opaque or transparent; you will be able to see all pages including both the front and the back of any page at any time. And you will be able to make a page as large as a wall, free standing, so that you can walk along as you read and step through it to read another page. You will be able to walk into a book, touch the words, listen to the words, read the words, remember the words. The variations will be almost unlimited and yours alone. All with the privacy and the intimacy of a written, printed book—just your mind and the mind of the writer.
Try describing that to Gutenberg.