In the last decade or so celebrations of the printed book have tended toward defensive apology or melancholy lament, in both cases assuming that the rise of digital media spells the end of the book as the most important means of transmitting information, thought, and feeling. Moreover, defenses of the book, such as Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (an early installment in the genre), often claim that the kind of reading encouraged by the traditional format fosters greater attention, concentration, and reflection than is possible with e-readers, web books, pdf’s, and so on. Reading electronic materials may save trees the case goes (if not usually put so baldly), but it will surely cause us to lose part of our souls.
Nostalgia and fretful distrust of technological innovation are, however, hardly likely to arrest the progress of digital reading formats and nor should they. If printed books are to last they will need more than sentimentality to preserve them. In fact, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, the 15th essay in Bound to Last: 30 Writers On Their Most Cherished Book, Phillip Meyer forcefully makes the case that books will last because, well, they last in the most literal sense:
Books, in the end, are such an advanced technology that we have begun to take them for granted. They are cheap, superhumanly durable, they can be passed on for generations. They outlast cars, pets, and homes… Your books, unlike your laptop, e-Reader, or whatever magic device they think of ten years from now, will always be there.
Printed books, in other words, are enormously practical objects and their only real disadvantage when compared to digital media is their inefficiency; they simply can’t store as much information in so compressed a space as electronic instruments. Still, they will continue to have an important place in literate cultures in the future—as the work of scholars like Roger Darnton and Anthony Grafton has made clear—and predictions or declarations of their demise are premature.
To its great credit Bound to Last does not sound an alarmist note, does not suggest that new technologies of reading will render printed books moot, thereby transforming readers into spiritual simpletons or ignoramuses. Rather, it is interested in how printed books have and will continue to be an essential part of our lives. Editor Sean Manning confesses in his introduction to being “completely blown away by the cutting edge technology of e-Readers” but goes on to insist that he and the contributors to the volume cherish printed books precisely for, not in spite of, their cumbersome materiality: “... the authors gathered here share [an] appreciation for the mnemonic power of good old-fashioned books.” (Manning’s appreciation of new technologies of reading suggests that he and contributors to the volume might be amused rather than disgusted that Bound to Last is, in fact, available in electronic format.)
The underlying theme of the collection is that the form of a book and its content—its body and soul so to speak—are inseparable and that the real significance of a given work is born out of complex communion between reader and object. A row of books on a shelf is an index of the reader’s life, external signs of the architecture of the interior self.
The theme may be consistent across the 30 essays that make up the volume but the improvisations on it greatly vary. Indeed, one of the real strengths of the volume is its eclecticism: contributors range from well-established authors (Ray Bradbury contributed the introduction) to relative novices (Karen Green is listed in the appendix as a “visual artist” with no mention of previously published pieces) though most fall somewhere in between these two profiles. The variety of perspectives, and books selected to write about, is impressive, but I would have appreciated an articulation of the method that informed it. Several pieces mention that the author was asked to contribute to the volume and I am curious if the structure of the volume reflects design or fortuitous happenstance.
In any case, it should be noted that at seven to nine pages on average individual pieces are not so much sustained meditations as anecdotal vignettes. This format is largely successful and the most successful pieces—“The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, Eighth Edition” by Terrence Holt or “Mythology” by Sigrid Nunez for example—suggest that in a very real sense books make us by establishing the structures of thought and understanding that govern our lives. We exist in them rather than the other way around. As Holt writes of the Merck Manual, “In one of its chapters the ending of my story is already written. I just can’t read it. Not yet. But the book knows.”
All in all, Bound to Last is a timely reminder of the permanent importance of printed books.