The Culture of the Book

I have a couple of thousand books in my personal library. Only lack of space and money prevents me from getting more. I have been a bibliophile from the time I was three or four, when my parents bought me my first Amar Chitra Kathas. Books were prized possessions; good books for children were hard to come by in the India of the nineteen-seventies. Fortunately, my parents indulged my hunger for books as much as their wallets permitted.

My father traveled a lot when I was young, which I didn’t like, but he made up for his absence by buying books for me during his travels. Some of my fondest memories are of waking up early in the morning with anticipation — he would often arrive from the airport late at night after I was sleep — for my father to open his travel suitcase and hand me a book or two. The next day or two were bliss as I immersed myself in a new story or a new set of scientific facts and theories. That’s how I read K.M Munshi’s Krishavatara series, Tell Me Why’s and several astronomy and nature books. Even the memory makes me tingle.

The moral of the story: in case it wasn’t obvious, I grew up believing that books are the keystone of all civilization. Much of what we consider important in high culture — religion, literature and science can be viewed through the lens of one human activity, namely, the writing of books. The first books such as the Bible combined the moral, the metaphysical, the factual and the poetic into one package. As societies became more complex, we invented new forms of writing that split the components into their separate parts. Mathematical symbolic writing was invented as a language for science. Galileo claimed the book of the universe being written in the language of mathematics. Meanwhile human experience is explored deeply in the novel, which still remains the fullest representation of the human world.

The End of Books

Having said all this, I believe that we are approaching the end of the book era. I find myself reading books less and less; when I was a child, books were everything from entertainment to time pass to serious reading to enlightenment. I don’t use books for passing time anymore and am increasingly finding entertainment through other media. Of course, I am not the first person to do so; as Steve Jobs said, people don’t read anymore. TV and the movies are the primary entertainment media for most people.

I am not talking about mass entertainment though; I am talking about high culture. Books still rule that roost because movies and TV programs don’t have the same capacity for illuminating our inner lives that novels do. That’s why I find the hypermedia so interesting; the web is different from movies because it combines the qualities of text with the qualities of images and moving pictures. A new art form is waiting to be invented.

Scholarship is behind entertainment. No one gets tenure for composing new academic media. That lack of respectability isn’t the conservatism of department chairs and tenure committees alone. There’s a genuine epistemological puzzle that remains to be understood: what exactly is the new knowledge that’s being produced by these new media forms? The demand for originality is being satisfied most clearly by those who’re building large data repositories and in the use of crowd intelligence to solve problems, neither of which can be done in the old style of scholarship. Still, they haven’t broken through to a new form of knowledge, as Galileo and others did with modern science. Until that happens, books will rule the world of scholarship. I have some ideas — mostly speculation — about the shape of these new forms of knowledge, but that’s for another occasion.