The Future of the Book 

Written in 2017 as part of course on Image and Influence

Art Metropole: An Introduction

Going to Art Metropole was an experience, also a rare occasion that I was shopping with another person. I looked at the online store beforehand, and had some items in my mind to check out in store. While there, I made sure to find the items from online, but wound up purchasing none of them and getting things that I knew nothing about beforehand. I probably could have read them both in store, since the person I was with took a long time deciding what to buy, but I chose read it later at home in a less stressful environment.

The two books I bought at Art Metropole were ones that I admittedly got for mostly aesthetic reasons. Beauty and Truth was on a table with other books, and I was drawn to the greenish gradient and thick serif typeface used on the cover. With Hollow Earth, the photo on the cover caught my attention. Once I flipped through them and read the back cover statements, I noticed a link between them: both were about things happening in Arctic Norway. Last fall, I had read a book about a man’s journey around the arctic circle and his interaction with various indigenous populations, and how capitalism (oil drilling, mining) was essentially wiping out their communities. I thought it was funny how the two things I bought were related in that way, although once focused on indigenous art and the other on mining’s affect on the geology in the region.

Beauty and Truth

Both those books were documenting something, one an art exhibition and the other a research project. I personally was interested in that role because I could see myself doing something like that in the future if I were interested in a topic and had the resources to undertake that kind of project. Previously, I’ve made books of my own photography, mostly as a memory document for my family, but it did not have the research element that these two have.
Hollow Earth

Form + Typography: Shape and Limitation

Books are a collection of things, bound together physically or digitally, forming a cohesive item. One thing I remember Jaleen Grove discussing during the Seneca at York lecture was how a survey was sent out about media preferences. People liked digital, but the majority wanted a physical book on the history of illustration. Print gives a sense of legitimacy and materiality that digital does not. Additionally, typography is supposed to be not only legible, but readable, especially for long passages of text or an entire book. Something I’ve noticed is that most academic books I see use conventional serif typefaces, but some of the more “designed” books will use sans serif or a slightly funky font.

A significant problem that printed books pose is limited space: there’s not infinite area on a page, and only so many pages can be bound together with the technology we have today. Richard Hollis in The Form of the Book Book urges designers to rethink what the book can be, to go beyond the conventions of print media and typography. For example, he applauds Bruce Mau’s S M L XL for pushing the book’s limits of size.1 Books provide a space for designers to talk about design. Transforming the medium itself should be part of their message, “extending the ways in which the page could ‘speak’ to the reader.”2

Media Platform Distinctions

In an issue of Cinema Journal, Jennifer Crewe discusses the publishing of both print and digital books, and how different media play into the decision making process . “A book that cannot be found through an online search cannot be found,”3 she writes, indicating the importance of digital media and metadata even when searching for printed books, because most people find books through web or database searches. One of the databases I use the most for scholarly sources for papers such as this is JSTOR, which is trying to make everything on the site searchable, as well as having working links to books and other references mentioned within text.4 On the topic of what type of books get printed versus published digitally, “well written books with a sustained argument for a fairly broad readership will continue to have an audience in print, whereas those that can more easily be broken upon mined of information will be published in digital-only versions,” and books with potentially less readership get printed, they would be short run or print-on-demand.5 She mentions that digital books could be enhanced with video or audio content through links, adding value that is unique to the digital medium,6 which is something I had not previously considered, but could be useful and interesting, making the book a multimedia experience.

During his discussion of print and digital media platforms, Mark Poster references Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, referring to analog media as “fixed cultural objects” that cannot easily be altered by consumers, encouraging “the value of the original, the privileged position of the author or creator…sharp distinction between the producer and consumer of culture,” and promoting celebrity of authors.7 I grew up with printed books, and had a pretty large library of fiction novels and Japanese manga when I was a kid, so I have some personal attachment to physical books and generally prefer reading printed media. However, since my high school years, I’ve developed an appreciation for digital works, mostly when I’m using them for academic purposes. Normally, I’m a slower reader on screen, but being able to highlight pdfs on my computer while I read them facilitates actual reading and while letting me mark important material. Although, I’m not sure if I necessarily interact with digitally published content more.

Crewe mentioned that although digital books are becoming more popular, they’re usually thought to be “less costly to produce…many book buyers tolerate only low prices for e-books.”8 I’d consider myself in that group, there’s something about digital media that feels like it should be free. Ever since I got my first computer, I’ve been pirating music, movies, and tv shows largely because I didn’t have money to pay for them. In my head i think of print as more worthy of my money because of its physicality, because it’s something I can hold and feel, not just look at on a screen like anything else.

Digital media has made me expect instantaneous results, so working with analog technologies is me trying be more considerate of what I create, taking more time with it and working to be patient. There’s also something that makes analog media feel special. Vinyl records have become a popular music format again, and I enjoy having physical copies of things I love. It’s not inexpensive or instantaneous like digital music, but it also doesn’t feel transient… listening to a record is a bit of a process where you have to engage with the physical medium. Film photography is even more of a process and probably more expensive. As a kid, I’d use disposable film cameras and then later digital ones. I never handled 35mm film until a couple years ago, and still have not developed it myself, so getting that done becomes a process. Same with reading, in a way. I could read an ebook or pdf on my phone, but i may not spend the time on it that I would with a book, and couldn’t interact with it or turn the pages. There’s also something exciting about going to a bookstore and being able to look at and flip through a selection.

Design as medium? Information Society

And so the question is raised, is design a medium? Personally, I don’t see design as a medium. Design is information manipulation, working through multiple, if not all media, to arrange objects, create compositions, and send messages. We live in an information society, and designed media shapes people as individuals and larger groups.

Michael Giesecke, in The Triumph of Typography, discusses humanity’s relationship to information and media. He argues that culture around the time the printing press came into use was an information society, or “book culture”, and “digitization and the application of new technologies are at the heart of a structural change in knowledge transfer and communication…obtaining a firm grasp of these changes calls for a shift in perspective, so that cultural history is understood primary as a history of information and communication media.”9 Giesecke claims that the prevailing media, the specific form of information processing and communication, determines a culture’s identity.”10

Technology does shape our interaction with the world, and there’s a constant barrage of information that is extremely difficult to escape. Different media affect us differently, as well as the level of engagement with them. Peter John Chen argues that digital media, and the digitization of analog media, shapes us as individuals and cultures, “We may not (yet) be cyborgs, but the digital media continues to shape us as we shape it.”11 In addition to making information more accessible, the internet has given “users the capacity to be both producers and users of content simultaneously.”12 Now, everyday people have the ability to be active participants rather than purely passive ones in the media landscape. This is an upheaval of the more traditional media power structure, where “elite media institutions [cultivated] attitudes among a passive viewing public.”13 Just as books altered the institutional hierarchy and information flows, opening it up to authors and printers, the internet and digital media has broadened that to include everyday people, even though it has strayed far from its original intention to be purely informational and non-commercial.14 Of course wealthy capitalists and corporations got into the internet and monetized things, but people, as individuals and collectives, have a more significant role in the current digitally dominated information society.

Are Books destined to be art?

Are books destined to become art? That question seems a lot to have to do with the various platforms and shapes books can take, as well as the content creator’s intention. Giesecke wrote that as digital became dominant, physical was seen as more of a craft. something artistic.15 However, I don’t think that the book is destined to become art necessarily, but rather a special item or an investment. Most books can be found online, either legitimately or pirated, and so it’s reasonable to think that people will do a lot of research into a book if they plan on buying a physical copy (at least I do). Digital technology makes most things incredibly accessible, so most of the printed books I have are things I either (1) couldn’t find online or (2) was interested in enough to have, either for the content or its visual value.

A favourite book, or at least a visual object, of mine is Hong Kong In-Between, which looks at how people utilize public and private space in Hong Kong. I bought it because I loved the cover and found out it was designed by one of my favourite designers. I didn’t know what the interior looked like until I had my own copy, but I enjoy like how bold it is, and also reminiscent of manga. It’s the kind of thing that I never sit down and read for a long time, but I will look at sections and go back to it often. Since then, I have looked at the publisher Park Books’ publications, and so much of their products appeal to me, mostly because of how they are designed, but the topics are interesting as well. I imagine that if I get the SALiVATION ARMY book from Art Metropole, that I would have a similar relationship with it, flipping through it on occasion, never reading it from cover to cover, since it’s more of an archive without a narrative, but always getting some satisfaction from it.
Hong Kong In-Between

One could easily argue that such an item, considered to be special and valued by someone mostly because of its visual aesthetic is art. However, most books I come across, even art or artist books, are designed objects. Paintings and sculptures are singular, and books are collections of things. Creators, authors, and designers push “the book” into nebulous space, somewhere between design and art, combining elements of both.

Or is the future pure information, more of a database?Another question that comes up in this type of discussion is if the future is leaning towards a society of pure information. Potentially, it could be, in some ways. Lev Manovich argues that the database has replaced the narrative as the dominant information structure, “Database is given material existence, while narrative is dematerialized.”16 Databases are always organized in some way, often presenting a snapshot of a certain time or collection of things. Books are becoming databases: cataloguing or documenting events, thought, or experiences in time. Both of the books I bought at Art Metropole are an archive of some type, one of an art exhibition and the other of research and people’s experiences with destructive industry. On the back cover of Beauty and Truth, the editors made it clear that they were not trying to create a narrative. Since that specific exhibit featured work by indigenous Sami artists, who have been marginalized and abused by colonizers like many indigenous populations across the globe, I think it was important that they did not try to.

In the book Circulating Cultures, Amanda Harris examines the relationship between colonizers and their descendants and indigenous populations in Australia. A lot of what she discusses could be applied to larger discussions of cross-cultural communication and information exchange, “changing focus on ‘present people’ instead of only ‘past objects,’”17 like Beauty and Truth does. The decision to not impose a story or narrative on experiences is a departure from past attitudes, working to collaborate rather than colonize, “objects no longer disembodied from their creators…materials have come to be fluid, changing objects which circulate in the present, creating practices of the future.”18

Ursula Anna Frohne wrote about how the network structure of technological media has shaped our current information society. Information fields previously belonged to mass media, so when everyone could access new forms of communication and experiment with them it started shifting economic and social conditions in favour of the people.19 Frohne notes that anxiety and opportunity of potential comes with the introduction of new media20, but considers information important for innovation and resistance: “information society not only shaped the collective imagination, but also contributed to the fascination with the reality shaping myth codes and data that facilitated the advancement of high-tech production modes and the appropriation of them in the formulation of a new respective for artistic practice.”21

Digital media allows for more voices to be heard, which is especially significant because it creates space for stories that would not have made it past elite media gatekeepers in the age of print, who restricted content in the name of capitalism. Mark Poster claims that the internet “multiplies voices so that every node in the network is a position of speech…bringing to fruition the dream that all consumers might become at the same time producers; that national borders almost disappear in internet exchanges.”22 Does the internet, and digital media make things more democratic? Anarchic? It isn’t clear, and Poster describes the current situation as “double edged” media: “allowing greater freedom for individuals and groups and greater control by dominant institutions… open to vastly divergent political uses…may lead to new directions of global political culture.”23

The Internet provides a platform for resistance, giving the people a space for their voices to be heard. Zines can do a similar thing, but in print. While at Art Metropole, I looked through a bunch of zines, many were based on the experiences of individual people or collectives with the same identity, be it a queer identity or part of an immigrant diaspora in Canada. So there is some sort of equivalence of content, and creators can choose which media to work through, as they both have their strengths (digital can link and is more accessible, print is more of an enclosed experience with more control over the product).

I doubt that books will ever be at a point of pure information. There is space for collections of facts, but it’s boring; even history books argue something. Everyone has opinions and experiences, and if they want to share them and have an outlet to do so, they will. The choice of medium to work in is influenced by a person’s access to it (physically, financially, etc.), as well as considerations for composition, material, and intended audience. The future of the book is flexible and could take many paths, but will most likely push boundaries and play with conventions of form and media. 

Richard Hollis, “Ways of Seeing Books,” in The form of the book book, ed. by Sara De Bondt and Fraser Muggeridge (London: Occasional Papers, 2010): 53.
2     Ibid., 51.
3     Jennifer Crewe, “We’re Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore—But Are We in Oz?” Cinema Journal, 52, no. 2 (Winter 2013): 119.
4     Ibid., 120.
5     Ibid., 121.
6     Ibid.
7     Mark Poster, “Global Media and Culture,” New Literary History, 39, no. 3, Literary History in the Global Age (Summer 2008): 691.
8     Crewe, “We’re Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore,” 120.
9     Michael Giesecke, “From scriptographic to typographic system.: The book culture as information society,” in The Triumph of Typography: Culture. Communication. New Media, ed. by Henk Hoeks and Ewan Lentjes (Arnhem Houten: ArtEZ Press, Uitgeverij Terra, 2015), 169.
10     Ibid.
11     Peter John Chen, “Contextualizing our digital age,” in Australian Politics in a Digital Age, (ANU Press, 2013), 13.
12     Ibid.
13     Chen, “Contextualizing our digital age,” 9.
14     Giesecke, “From scriptographic to typographic,” 172.
15     Ibid., 169.
16     Lev Manovich, “Database,” in The Triumph of Typography: Culture. Communication. New Media, ed. by Henk Hoeks and Ewan Lentjes (Arnhem Houten: ArtEZ Press, Uitgeverij Terra, 2015), 196.
17     Amanda Harris, “Archival Objects and the Circulation of Culture,” in Circulating Cultures, (ANU Press: 2014), 8
18     Ibid., 9.
19     Ursula Anna Frohne, “Art In-Formation: American Art under the Impact of New Media Culture,” American Art, 27, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 38.
20    Ibid., 41.
21     Ibid., 38.
22     Poster, “Global Media and Culture,” 688.
23     Ibid., 690.