Saturday, October 1, 2011

The E-lluminated Manuscript

Let's put aside for the limited purposes of this post the timeless argument about whether time's passage is linear or circular, and simply concur with the old karmic adage (not to be confused with Justin Timberlake's similarly titled song), "What goes around, comes around." In view of the e-reader and e-reading explosion currently underway, it's an intriguing thought to consider in assessing the future of the book by revisiting its ancient past.

We're taught in history classes to thank the monastic scribes whose tireless efforts in the centuries following the decline of the Roman Empire in the third century A.D. prevented humanity's loss of classical Greek and Roman literature. A significant portion of those monks' most renown work was produced in the form we now call "illuminated manuscripts." An illuminated manuscript is one where the work's text is adorned, often lavishly and intricately, with all sorts of opulent decorations. During those dark times centuries ago, the few readers and patrons fortunate (and literate) enough to appreciate the scribes' toil found their reading experiences enhanced by all types of engaging artwork designed to celebrate the text and expand upon its meanings.

In other words, those ancient books' allure wasn't restricted to their textual content. Given the technological and socio-economic constrictions of the times, in effect the illuminated manuscript was the first publicly disseminated multi-media literary experience. The illuminated manuscript reigned supreme for over a thousand years, until Gutenberg invented his printing press and gave us the means of mechanized mass book production that remains the dominant (albeit waning)  mode of book manufacture and publication to this day. Gutenberg's invention sounded the death knell for the illuminated manuscript.

Until now.

The rise of the commercial Internet and the plethora of wired and wireless devices that easily and cheaply access its virtually limitless content has lead to an attendant explosion in reading books on ever more sophisticated machines. When my debut thriller "Blood of the Moon" first came out not even two years ago, its physical formats outsold its electronic ones by a ratio of about ten to one. Today, the reverse is true. My author friends tell me their sales statistics largely mirror mine. This is no passing trend -- the business model for book production and distribution is changing irrevocably, in lockstep with readers' demands and expectations as determined by the kinds of machines they use to access, purchase and read written work. 

As Gutenberg's press dethroned the illuminated manuscript almost 600 years ago, so today e-reading has rendered Borders bankrupt, and the remaining big box booksellers (not to mention the publishers and authors who rely on them for sales) tremble in its cross-hairs. Barring a global electro-magnetic pulse attack that devastates the Internet and returns us to the days before e-everything, the mass-produced physical book as we know it has but one future -- extinction.

Before letting this depress you, dwell for a moment on what physical books are, and aren't. A "book" is a piece of technology, comprised mostly of paper and ink, for the primary purpose of sharing information or a story. The book isn't the information, nor is it the story. Humans have been sharing information and stories with each other since we learned how to communicate with hand signals and grunts. We'll continue to do so until we stop breathing.

Information and stories aren't going away. The way we're accustomed to sharing them is, because our technology and expectations have outgrown the "book."

Our machines -- the computers and tablets and e-readers and smartphones we use -- position us to enjoy the adornment of information and stories with all sorts of opulent decorations. Those decorations may not be the same as the ones produced in monkish scriptoria in centuries past, but they're related to them. Just as with the illuminated manuscripts of long ago, information and stories read via modern e-reading machines encourage (and demand) more than mere text to educate and entertain us. In the near future the most successful e-books will be the ones vivid with video, voice, pictographic and/or musical decorations that celebrate the text and expand upon its meanings.

Only the illuminated manuscript can take advantage of our e-reading machines in ways that are compelling enough to make us want to read deeply rather than skim broadly. This is even truer for the generations after ours, whose lifetimes will be steeped in e-everything from the day they learn their first A-B-C's on multi-media e-reading machines. The authors, artists, publishers and readers who embrace this will thrive in ways unimagined not many years ago. The ones who don't will find themselves quaint mementos of times gone by.

What goes around comes around. Hence, the resurrection of the original multi-media literary experience -- the illuminated manuscript.

Or, as I like to call it -- the E-lluminated Manuscript.

"The medium is the message." 
~~ Marshall McLuhan (1964) ~~

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