Last week I saw Hanah Ryu Chung’s accomplished documentary short, Epilogue: The Future of Print, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. For twenty-five lyrical minutes, Chung weaves together interviews with a group of hardcore bibliophiles in the Toronto area — independent and antiquarian booksellers, fine press printers and bookbinders, book artists and designers – on the future of the printed book. You can watch it here:
Acknowledging that electronic books are still in their earliest stages, the contributors speculate about the role of print in a digital age: drawing a distinction between the aesthetic and the informational aspects of a book; noting the relative stability of print as a medium in contrast to fast evolving, fast obsolete digital formats; comparing the different sensory experiences that printed books and e-books (as they exist today) offer the reader. As bookseller Stephen Fowler observes: “the more that culture becomes just this invisible abstraction stored on some server somewhere . . . the more that tactile, physical culture is going to seem precious.” Printed books, in this narrative, have a special role to play in the streaming future, satisfying our innate desire to handle a well-designed object, to own it, to give it, rather than simply clicking “share.”
Almost all the contributors expect printed books and electronic books to coexist in the future, playing different roles, meeting different needs, appealing to different impulses. And yet what’s jarring about Epilogue is the mawkishly elegiac tone of the film, so at odds with the optimism expressed in it. The funereal strings! The bare branches! The pervasive Canadian drizzle! Our way of life has fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf. The book is over, and this is its Epilogue.
Well, no. Quite the contrary.
So what’s up? One of the contributors to Epilogue is Joanne Saul, owner of Toronto’s TYPE Books, the site of this year’s animated short The Joy of Books, which now has over three million hits on YouTube. Imagine how different the experience of watching Epilogue would be if the same interviews were presented in the spirit of The Joy of Books:
But if they were, Chung’s documentary would have to be titled something like New Chapter or Plot Twist.
Sometimes there’s an unseemly rush, among those of us with a passion for the printed book, to mourn the codex while it’s still alive. Maybe it’s a way of getting out ahead of our own projected disappointment, but it’s distracting, and ultimately defeating. An object crafted of paper and thread, leather and glue, is no longer the default format for the transmission of knowledge, and some genres of book, whose work is better done digitally, are gone for good. But the pleasures of the printed book are immediate, and easily grasped, and I don’t worry that my grandchildren –who will undoubtedly spend much of their time processing digital media, as I do — will regard the Honey & Wax shelves as an inaccessible stack of punched cards, an archive whose meaning is lost to them.
As long as they can read, it won’t be.