“Two hundred years from now, Super Mario Bros. could be treated with as much respect as The Brothers Karamazov.“ (from The Atlantic)

“Books will not disappear, but neither will they escape the effects of the digital technologies that interpenetrate them.” (p. 186)

If the book does not disappear, will it still maintain its place as a privileged medium for print? If so, will e-lit be a sort of second-class citizen? If the book remains, can e-lit (or Super Mario Bros.) ever be comparable to The Brothers Karamazov?  These are some of the questions provoked by my reading of Hayles and the Atlantic article.

The book has long held a high level of status in Western culture – nearly any serious idea is published in print in the “container” we call a book. I would argue that the book is more than just a performance/storage medium or container like Hayles points out. It also has status as an “ art object” – like an album. Last semester, I wrote a paper on the concept of the album in the age of digital music. In it, I argued that new media was increasing the desire or nostalgia for the physical object, while at the same time enhancing our ability to collect these objects.  I think this is close to what Hayles is saying in the last quote above.  E-lit won’t replace the book as we know it, and may in fact increase feelings of nostalgia for that classic print medium. E-lit might also make books better, as we’ve seen with some of the examples Hayles provided in the final chapter.

That being said, can e-lit really be “good?” (Or at least as “good” as a great novel) Of course, Hayles is right to call for a new or modified criticism in evaluating e-lit – nearly all cultural expression is fair game for academic study. However, will e-lit be to the book what the MP3 file is to the vinyl record? The MP3 file has many advantages, like its compressibility and easy replication. Quality of sound is not one, however. As the MP3 file has become more commonplace, niche markets have grown for CD box sets and vinyl records, which offer superior sound quality as well as deluxe packaging. Indeed, vinyl records have been sold and produced in increasing numbers over the last few years.

E-lit offers many possibilities for expression that the book cannot, but it will probably always lack the packaging.  Much consideration goes into cover art for a book (like the LP) – so much so that it serves as more than “storage” for print when not in use – it is also an object for display. Placing The Brothers Karamazov on your bookshelf so guests might see it has more meaning than simply storing one of the great novels of Russian literature.  This meaning can be as esoteric as how they are arranged on the shelf, or what you place it next to. In the novel High Fidelity, the protagonist remarked that rearranging his record collection allowed him to “write his own biography.”  At the very least, there’s an element of conspicuous consumption at work in the display of books on a shelf.  Obviously, the content of a book will be the primary element of which it is judged, but its status as an object can’t be overlooked when considering the future of print.

Simply put, if the book doesn’t go away, can anything be as good as the book?

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