Books: what will come after

Cat sleeping on books

Whatever happens, don't panic. (Photograph © Umutvedat, 2011)

Funny timing. Yesterday evening, Lausanne University (UNIL) Department of Human Sciences organized a symposium about what will happen after the so-called “death” of paper books. Its title: “Qu’y aura-t-il après le livre ?” (viz. “What will come after the book?”). A few hours ago, on the other side of Atlantic Ocean, Steve Jobs announced his resignation from his role as Apple’s CEO. Thus, yesterday, the contributors of UNIL symposium talked about the slow disappearance of the books while the best paper book gravedigger sent his resignation letter to Apple board. I won’t compare these two events, one important for the world and one somehow provincial, but this coincidence was worth being noticed.

One answer given during symposium discussions was that after the books we will still have… books. Whatever format or platform we shall use tomorrow to read books, our dear texts and sources of knowledge will still exist, in the guise of an avatār or an ectoplasm. I.e. the medium doesn’t matter; what is important is the transmission of the Word1.

Other topics discussed during the talk were: the problem of the cost of ebooks and scientific revues—nowadays only available in big uneven packages, sold by monopolistic publishers and platforms—, and the cost of the devices used to read them (computers and tablets vs. tables and hands); the problems of copyright and the distribution of knowledge (subjet too vast to be discussed here); finally, the unavoidable mix of media we’ll use in the future—digital natives already read with computers, smartphones, tablets and… paper books. Is that a problem? Do they inevitably suffer attention deficit disorder? Not at all.

As mentioned during the conference, one of the biggest worries about ebooks and, generally, the use of electronic files instead of paper, is the preservation of such volatile, energy-thirsty, quickly obsolete and copyright-DRM-stuffed documents. That is a challenge, and needless to say that acid-free paper books are nowadays far safer and more stable than ebooks. In good conditions, they could surprisingly live longer than their descendants…

  1. In Sanskrit, it’s called Vāc, and Vāc, as a the goddess of Speech, mother of the Vedas, is not subject to decay nor death. As a proof of her everlasting soundness, we can mention the Vedas themselves, which have been transmitted very precisely during centuries without even being written.