Commentary

The world did not end … neither will the book

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IF YOU are still able to read this, it means the end of the world did not take place on Dec. 21 as direly predicted—and perhaps anticipated with much dread? And it is a good time as any, having surpassed that obstacle, to look ahead but only after taking stock of how far we have gone in digital publishing.

It was from Dr. Resil Mojares, historian and critic, regarded as one of the leading intellectuals today, that I first heard of the fascinating book by Umberto Eco, “This is Not the End of the Book,” published in 2011. It documents a series of conversations between two bibliophiles described as deeply in love with dusty volumes and literary history. They are Umberto Eco, novelist and Jean-Claude Carriere, screenwriter. A sobering reminder they bring up is rather than preserving the book per se as an artifact, more important is preserving the things that books contain: ideas, stories, knowledge. There is elegance to the book as there is to a piece of technology. And to Mr. Eco’s often repeated simile, “The book is like the spoon.  Once invented, it cannot be improved.” It is what the spoons hold that is important. To the two gentlemen, it is not the contraption nor the medium, but the first-rate thoughts still required to fill our new reading gizmos. That remains the most serious consideration—the content, as always.

These insights were especially relevant during the Future of the Book 3rd Digital Publishing Conference recently sponsored by the National Book Development Board, the Vibal Publishing House and the Vibal Foundation. This was the third consecutive year that such a conference was taking place and there was the temptation to ask, “Are we there yet?”

This year’s gathering had added significance with the presence of Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum, a nonprofit trade and standards organization responsible for the ePub open standard and delivery format for digital books and publications. It was lamentable that the discussions were limited to a select group of industry representatives ready to embark on a digitized future.

The gathering proved that the publishing industry intends to be in command of the future of the book as opposed to letting changes catch all of us off guard. The ability to adapt to the change makes a good industry. The ability to cause change is the mark of a great industry. Digital publishing has changed reading habits. It has turned its back on the cumbersome and sometimes wasteful allocation of supply. It has multiplied content production and accessibility. Without doubt, it continues to promote and increase readership.

The word “change” sounds so misleading. It sounds as if digital publishing is the first and last “change” in book evolution. In fact, the book industry, a historic human industry, has not stopped evolving. Its first major changes such as the move from manual to mechanical typeset were intended to reach a wider audience. Publishing houses were established to supply a staggering demand for books. But no matter how big the publishing house, no matter how many book copies are printed, the number of print books is finite. With digital publishing, data have the potential to be distributed infinitely and with such amazing speed. Thus, the incredible and mystifying appeal of e-books.

Who is to argue with the convenience and the immediacy of e-books? Although I love my iPad for a reader, I cling to my romance with the intoxicating smell of fresh ink on immaculately clean sheets of paper.

But even that does not hold true anymore with a piece of trivia about the perfume industry that someone passed on to me, in an attempt to enlighten me to move on with the times.

Well, perfume makers have come out with a scent called “Paper Passion” to indulge electronic book readers’ nostalgia for the smell of paper. So with that goes my favorite argument in defense of the hard copy of a book—the mere sensory romance of touching and savoring the smell and texture of paper. And before we go online to order our own novelty bottles of “Paper Passion,” take the time to open a traditional book made out of paper, caress it and remember how far we have come.

And this has only barely touched the surface of digital publishing in the country. Many points of view need to be heard and many more questions, answered. Among them, how do authors protect their rights seeing the accessibility of e-books to all and sundry?

What measures does the Philippine book industry need to take to prepare for the digital platform? If digital publishing eases the process for authors and encourages self-publishing, where lies the future for the traditional publishers?

Most important, how accessible can we make the digital format and its required hardware to the public school system with at least 38,000+ elementary schools and 7,200 high schools with a total enrollment of at least 20 million students? They, more than any sector, beg to be served first and foremost.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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