by by Alex Verdolini

illustration by by Ben-Hur

Like Nietzsche's madman, the twenty-first century prophets are running out onto the streets, their lanterns burning brightly in the daylight. They are shouting: "We've killed it! The book is dead!"

If they are right, then we, the world's bibliophiles, are left with a number of questions. Among them: when dressed in black, our foreheads marked with the ash of incinerated pages, we go to the Graveyard of Ideas to inter our unfortunate friend, what dates will we inscribe on the headstone? When was the book born, and when, exactly, was it murdered?
There are books on the shelves still, after all. We can touch the wood-pulp, verify them tangibly. What, then, is the nature of their passing? The answer lies, in part, with the Google Books project--an undertaking that kills off its own namesake, in a way.
But first, the date of birth, which depends on what we want to call a book. If it's simply a long piece of writing reproduced in material form, we'd say around 2,400 B.C., in Egypt, with the papyrus scroll. The scroll remained the preferred format until the rise of the more economical codex (roughly speaking, our kind of book) in the Christian era. Until then, Egyptian papyrus was shipped in massive quantities to Athens and Rome. It was papyrus that burned when Caesar's men sacked Alexandria and its library, and the first real trade in books involved an Egyptian scroll: namely, the Book of the Dead, copies of which were widely bought and buried with the deceased--these were often rife with errors, as they weren't intended to be read by anybody with a pulse or proper eyesight. If the book is a series of sheets bound together, then it was born around 300 B.C., with the codex. But when did it die?
This question is somewhat more difficult. One place to start is Google's settlement with the Authors' Guild and the Association of American Publishers regarding the Google Book Search feature. The Book Search, which was unveiled in 2004 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, allows users to view uncopyrighted books in their entirety, as well as sample passages from copyrighted ones. Google, working with several university libraries, has scanned millions of volumes--all without permission--and in 2005, the Guild and the Association both sued Google separately, claiming that the Book Search constituted "massive copyright infringement."
The $125 million settlement, reached on October 28, stipulates a 60 dollar recompense for the author of every copyrighted volume scanned without permission. 63 percent of the Books Search's revenue--from advertising and, eventually, sales of online access--will be split between authors and publishers. In return, Google will be able to display up to twenty percent of any copyrighted book whose author has not opted out of the settlement.
As the New York Times reported this week, Google has printed a legal notice in over seventy languages, informing publishers and authors of their privileges. One brief paragraph in it will not be of much legal interest--but it does, in a certain way, give us a date for the death of the book: "For purposes of the Settlement, a "Book" is a written or printed work on sheets of paper bound together in hard copy form that, on or before January 5, 2009...was published or distributed to the public or made available for public access."
Legally speaking, this means only that books published January 6 or later are ineligible for the 60 dollar recompense. But--in a symbolic sense--all the "printed works" published since then are in some way no longer books, but something new. They are the walking dead--they participate only evanescently in the four thousand-year history of bookish matter. They are the breath that remains on the window; our old friend has already passed into another, lonelier and windowless room.
A second question: what will change? It is clear that, in many ways, the Book Search will be a great gift to the literary world, a new, digital Library of Alexandria. One computer in every public library in the US will provide complete access to the archives--which is to say, to almost every book in the world. But it represents a major step away from the material book and, as such, will bring other, more complicated repercussions.
Every vehicle for information has an inescapable effect upon its content. In the age of oral poetry, literature formed around the shape of the human memory. Poets used mnemonic devices and recycled memorable lines. This gave us meter and the epithet--iambs, dactyls and the wine-dark sea. Later on, in the centuries following Gutenburg serialization gave us the cliffhanger--learn Pip's fate in the next installment!--and, perhaps, the notion of the chapter book
What does the book give us? To begin with, its expense serves as a filter for literature. Many good books have gone unpublished--but these probably pale in comparison to the bad books that the publishers have spared us.
Another upshot of the book--more interesting, but more difficult to prove--is the emphasis we place on authorship. In the oral era, authors were shrouded by the passage of time and by the countless insertions and erasures that later bards imposed upon their work. The Sanskrit Mahabharata, for example, was modified to such an extent that, in a way, it is not so much an individual work as a library of philosophy and myth, a layering of stories.
The book preserves a single author's name upon the title page, and, as a tangible object, it is somewhat removed from the cultural turbulence and din. It makes writing physically separate, as a frame or a pedestal does to art. (Think about the difference between a medieval tapestry, half of whose purpose is to keep the room warm, and a postmodern canvas, painted for a wall that, the painter knows, exists for it alone. Both are the creations of an artistic élite, addressed to a high-cultural audience--but one participates in the world of useful things while the other is set apart.)
As literature decamps from the paper page and makes its journey to the Internet, it is reasonable to expect that these two book-related trends will fade away. The flow of literary information will increase exponentially--those unpublished masterpieces will become available, hidden amid a cloud of trash. Already, anyone can self-publish very cheaply or for free--the latest generation of vanity presses can turn a profit on books that sell only five or six copies; they print to order and sell only through Amazon. Once the book sheds its physicality--once publication, unburdened by the price of paper, is essentially free--publishing houses will have little reason, beside their reputations, to reject a manuscript. This is not to say that the prestigious houses will start releasing trash, but that the publisher's role as gatekeeper will decrease. (Maybe as importantly, the physical constraints will fall away: color images will be no pricier than black-and-white, and a two-thousand page novel will be perfectly economically efficient.)
The author will recede somewhat; literary writing will blend more with what surrounds it. The distance between a novel and its parody in a magazine is inevitably greater, more physical, than that between an e-book and a piece of fan-fiction based on it--these last two are separated only by a few clicks or a hyperlink; they appear on the same screen.
At the end of his Metamorphoses, Ovid famously wrote: "Wherever Roman might extends, in all lands beneath its rule, I shall be the one whom people hear and read. And if poets truly can foretell, I shall live." We've come to think of his confident vivam--"I shall live" --as the expression of every author's most fundamental hope. It is not the sort of thing that Homer or another oral poet would have written: notice that Ovid mentioned not just hearing, but also reading--immortality is deeply connected to the notion of the written book.
Maybe the Internet will kill immortality. The book made everlasting literary life a possibility: unlikely, but quite worth fighting for. Something like the Google Book search makes immortality inevitable, uninteresting; the space on Google's hard drives will, by Moore's law, increase fast enough to outpace any number of typewriting apes.