Demonising digital and fetishising print is a dangerous game

Demonising digital and fetishising print is a dangerous game

It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn't cut the pages.

So says Owl Eyes in The Great Gatsby, in a passage brought to mind by a slew of articles in recent months in awe of the printed page, and its latter-day resurgence in the form of physical book sales, which have returned to growth (this one from the Guardian is a prime example). The growth of print is a welcome development, of course. Less welcome is the tone of most of the commentary, best described as adversarial, and less politely described as, frankly, snooty. Adversarial because the resurgence of print is framed largely in the context of it vanquishing digital forms of reading (in itself questionable, given the limitations of the data cited, as outlined in an article by my editor), which is implied to be somehow inferior. 

The demonisation of digital reading dovetails with an overly fetishistic view of print. The feel of turning the page! The joy of lending a book to a neighbour or friend! (A jarring thing to cite in a piece premised on book sales, one might argue.) The heaving to-read pile on the bedside table! All awfully lovely, I'm certain. But so is the ability for visually impaired readers to increase the type size on an ereader; the speed and economy of publishing enabled by digital distribution and printing; the mode of digital delivery itself for readers in rural areas not served by a bookshop (or a next-day postal service); the facility to travel with numerous, lengthy ebooks unencumbered by their physical bulk. Sure, you can't feel the tactility of paper on an ereading device, but nor can you view embedded video or audio in print, refer easily to linked source material, look up unknown terms instantly, or navigate interactive infographics. 

The ethos brings to mind Gatsby's bulging library comprised of books with their pages uncut; (physical) books that elide their primary purpose (being read) and instead serve a secondary function of projecting an aura of intellectualism on their owner. (It’s a rouse.) It's evident in a number of think-pieces lauding 'offline' bookshops, too, most of which will contain the word 'haven' somewhere, as well as an inference to digital as being a 'distraction' of some kind. A lauding of the offline is aligned with a larger narrative of the tweeification of 'analogue', and it's equally odious. If digital really was such a hindrance, then the bookshops in question would scrap their electronic cash registers and chip-and-pin machines and become a cash-only operation. There really is nothing like the feel of the printed currency, you know.

Let's return to the object being fetishised. It springs, in part, from a dematerialisation of the medium as prompted by the proliferation of digital reading platforms and devices. If you are able to access the same content at a fraction of the cost in 'e' formats (and in many instances, for free), then it makes sense to value-add in the re-materialisation of the content. By which I mean, the justification of charging a higher retail price for a print object must be based in the inherent value in its packaging. Note the marked rise in quality of design (and often, production values and price point) in the newspaper and magazine market. That, essentially, is the nub of the tweeification of books. 

What grates with this reader is the rose-tinted luvviness of positing print books as a nostalgic medium, something akin to vinyl records or typewriters: forms that have been wholly superseded as the most appropriate large-scale carriers and conveyors of their content. The irony of using a retro photo filter when taking a picture of your book (preferably on a distressed, 'vintage' wooden table, or another authentic form of mis en scene to compliment the authentic format) is not lost—nor is the fact that most are captured and disseminated through a digital platform and device. #Seriously. In doing so, obituaries are being written for a form that is far from outdated, and even further from obsolescence. Vinyl and typewriters are, aside from a niche market of enthusiasts, arcane technologies. Vinyl–and, to a degree, printing technologies such as letterpress—have come full circle and become high-end, 'luxury' products for a niche market. 

Books, for the most part, are not. Viewing and fetishising them as luxury products alienates large pockets of the population that is essential to its continued growth; it's hifalutin; it's counterproductive. It's a Gatsbyish view of books as accessories, akin to a style feature I recently read lauding the aesthetic value of a Daunt Books tote: intellectual posturing at its most lamentable.

The ereading revolution has stalled because it transposes linear narratives into a form that presupposes non-linearity: online is a 'web', where the linear narratives of the majority of books are a long, unprotruding motorway. This suits most of the writing that we have for centuries distributed in between the covers of a printed book. It's horses for courses, but every course has its horse. It's time to get out of the saddle, drop the dialectic thinking, and realise that, no matter the steed or its speed, we ought to be riding in the same direction.