Last week, I spent a couple of days in the subterranean steampunk corridors of MIT, attending the symposium Unbound: Speculations on the Future of the Book. The halls were crowded with publishers, librarians, critics, and conservators, and the rare book trade was represented too: John Waite in the back, and Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis to my right, energetically tweeting about simulacra. I took a few notes of my own.
Poet Christian Bök kicked off the event with a reading from his Xenotext project, in which he translates an original poem into a DNA sequence, then implants the sequence into the genome of a germ so that the protein generated in response forms a second poem. Given the ability of Bök’s pet bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans, to withstand acid, dehydration, vacuum, and extremes of heat and cold, and to repair damage to its own DNA, this “extremophile” germ could, theoretically, serve as a stable literary archive capable of outlasting human life on earth.
In sum: D. radiodurans makes the paperback vs. Kindle debate look a little petty.
The loopy sci-fi quality of opening night didn’t last — as I suppose it couldn’t. Most of Friday’s presenters addressed the practical forecast for codex and screen, author and audience, over the next decade or so. The talk that really struck me came from digital media pioneer Bob Stein, now head of the Institute for the Future of the Book, who invited all of us to join the beta test of SocialBook, an ambitious post-print publishing platform.
Stein observes that the act of reading is evolving quickly from a solitary activity to a more collaborative one. In all aspects of its design, SocialBook foregrounds unfolding conversations between reader and writer, and among readers in a group, making every book, old and new, a virtual place where people communicate directly with one another.
We looked at a page of Cervantes in SocialBook. A group of readers – in this case, a high school Spanish class and their teacher – had marked up the text, the wide margins dense with conversational threads, represented visually in a way familiar to anyone who uses Facebook. The students still read Don Quixote as written, but an integral part of that process was responding to one another responding to Cervantes. Outside the classroom, SocialBook allows readers to join multiple communities, in real time and across decades. My unborn granddaughter, reading Middlemarch on SocialBook in the year 2055, could conceivably pull up comments I made before her birth, passages I highlighted, reading the novel along with me and adding her own observations for future generations.
Knowing myself, I can’t imagine giving up the solitude of being lost in a book, the luxurious reprieve from chat, but the social aspects of reading are close to my heart as well, and to the heart of Honey & Wax. When I first considered starting a rare book company, I thought of dealing solely in association copies: books presented by one writer to another, books from the libraries of interesting people, books signed and inscribed and annotated in ways that traced a history of human connection. I abandoned that plan as too narrow, but Honey & Wax remains dedicated to books as a form of social currency, a means of connecting writers to readers, and readers to one another. “Use books as bees use flowers,” the line that inspired our name, reflects an active and communal model of reading, generating something new and sweet and useful out of the perennial classics.
Whether SocialBook takes off or not, some kind of networked reading experience seems inevitable, bringing people together around (or even inside) the text of the books that matter to them. I don’t believe, though, that books as artifacts will disappear. We’ll still own books in the future, we’ll just demand more from them than we have in the past. The ones we choose to keep on our shelves, the ones we share with the people we love, will have to justify their material presence, by being unique or beautiful or surprising in some way, and that’s good news for the rare book trade, because it makes every reader who buys a book into a collector.
That said, I can’t deny that in our collaborative networked future, I’d also love to handle the first edition of Bök’s Xenotext, the living poem mounted on a laboratory slide. If Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand nuclear winter, I’m sure it can survive my refrigerator.