Books struggle to survive
A few years ago, I visited various libraries in Korea for a story, and a librarian recommended I read a Japanese novel titled “Library War.” Since it was recommended by a librarian, I expected it to be a serious book.
But it was a very interesting, easy read. Just like most Japanese literature in the “light novel” genre, its setting is more interesting than the plot itself. It is based in a period 30 years after censorship becomes legal. Armed censors crack down on libraries and confiscate books, which then become scarce. As a result, libraries become more important than ever. These institutions fight censorship and confiscation by wielding the right to collect data and keep various books that cannot be found on the market. They wage a war against censorship in order to defend books.
When I first read this novel, electronic book readers were being introduced to the Korean market. I thought of the day when printed materials would become a rarity, for different reasons than in the novel.
Of course, such a future has not arrived. Nevertheless, books are certainly becoming less common. According to statistics by the Korean Publication Industry Promotion Agency, the number of copies of new publications in Korea dropped from more than 130 million in 2007 to 86 million last year.
The changing trend is obvious to see in subway cars. Most riders spend their commutes on their smartphones. It is very rare to see people reading a book. In fact, you never run out of things to read, from news to social media, on your smartphone. Also, the world is moving rapidly. It takes at least several months to write and publish a book.
As the expression “half-life of knowledge” shows, a massive amount of information, far greater than what’s in a book that will be obsolete in a few years, is produced in real time. But online information is not as complete and conclusive as in a book.
The origin of the book goes back to when the Romans bound pieces of parchment paper together. For more than 2,000 years, books served as mediums to record and deliver knowledge and information. U.S. technologist David Weinberger explained that a book has to have an ending due to the physical limitation of paper. This completeness is crumbling in the digital era.
Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls the collapse of conclusions to narrative “pesentism.” Ironically, in order to explain the new world of digital technology, Rushkoff and many other writers still resort to books to pursue this sense of completeness. This proves that no other means can fully replace books, which have always dominated the thoughts and reasoning of mankind.
Perhaps what we are witnessing now is not just a slump in the publishing industry but a struggle for survival of the books. I would like to take the side of the books.
The author is a culture and sports news writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 23, Page 34
By LEE HU-NAM