Discussions, No.3  Oct. 4, 2010


KŌNO MICHIKAZU People have taken to describing this year as the beginning of a new era of digital publishing. Amazon released its Kindle DX digital reader last fall, and when the Apple iPad went on sale in Japan at the end of May this year, I was one of many who rushed out to buy one. The launch of so many high-profile devices one after another like this makes it feel as though the digital age really is upon us at last. Recent developments have sent shock waves through the publishing world, and people are worried that publishing companies and bookstores may have outlived their usefulness. Some have even compared the upheaval caused by the arrival of these latest products from the United States to the coming of Commodore Perry’s “black ships” to open up Japan in the 1850s. There has been talk about the advent of the digital age in publishing several times already over the past few years, to the point that it has become something of a cliché, but there’s a sense of urgency and anxiety this time around that makes it feel like the real thing.

KABAYAMA KŌICHI The spread of the digital culture into the mainstream has certainly put the wind up people. Time and again we’ve seen the emergence of panicky reactions. People have suggested that these developments are going to change the face of print media radically–or to put it more bluntly, that books on paper may cease to exist altogether, meaning the end of the road for publishers and bookstores. As a practical matter, though, everyone has known that books aren’t going to just disappear overnight, so for all the talk of a new era, revolutionary shakeups in the industry, the actual changes have been relatively limited. That’s the pattern we’ve seen repeated several times up to now.

But this time the arrival of the Kindle and the iPad has had a sensational impact–and we can be sure that Google will also enter the field sooner or later. You only have to look at mobile phones to see how information technology has become an integral part of mainstream society to a degree that’s incomparable to just ten years ago. Obviously, it is quite likely that these developments will affect the shape of books and the book industry in years to come. In that sense it’s probably not wrong to say that things have changed fundamentally at the start of this new era. The term “globalization” has been around for a decade at least, but now globalization is actually happening for real.

We are the last of the old generation, which is why we feel the differences so keenly between the previous analog world of reading and the present. Today’s young people may think they can get on just fine without books. But people like us can’t forget so easily the significance and the mission that books have had until now. It’s probably the same story all around the world. It is not as though Americans are saying they have no need for books anymore. There are still huge bestsellers in both the United States and China. I think it’s the responsibility of our generation to make sure we don’t lose sight of the significance of this.

KŌNO In considering the future of books, I think it’s important to maintain a sense of historical perspective. At a time like this, when we’re living through changes that some people predict may eventually prove even more dramatic than the Gutenberg revolution, I think we need to avoid becoming transfixed by the events taking place in front of our eyes and consider the history and future of books and reading from a wider perspective.

KABAYAMA Gutenberg is credited with the invention of modern printing technology, but long before that, the bound paper book itself was a truly revolutionary development. The book we take for granted today is actually quite interesting as a format. Essentially, it is just a collection of words, or printed illustrations–but the format itself is subject to remarkably little variation: basically a rectangular collection of bound paper several centimeters thick. At the moment there is nothing ready to take the place of this format. The format of a collection of bound paper that can be held easily in the hand arose independently in two separate parts of the world. In the West, the invention took place in the Roman Empire around the third century. Letters that had previously been inscribed on tablets of clay came to be written first on scrolls and then–with the introduction of papyrus and, later, parchment–were tied together in a bound format called a codex.

In East Asia, the transition to bound form from bamboo slips and the like took place around the same time–during the late Han dynasty or the Six Dynasties period. This is the form of the book that has come down to us in the twenty-first century today. For some reason, the book format developed completely independently in East Asia and Western Europe. People talk of Gutenberg as the inventor of moveable type printing presses, but woodblock printing was widespread in East Asia long before that. Eventually, in the fifteenth century block printing and moveable type flourished in Europe as well, especially copperplate printing. Just like the book format itself, printing technology was only invented in East Asia and Western Europe–and didn’t occur independently anywhere else in the world: not in ancient Greece or Rome, Egypt, the Inca Empire, or in any of the other civilizations of the world.

KŌNO Until Gutenberg, all manuscripts in Europe were copied by hand, right?

KABAYAMA Yes. In Asia, printing began in sixth- or seventh-century China, and by the eighth century it had spread to the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Vietnam, and elsewhere. But in Europe there was no printing at all at that stage. The main reason for this was probably the lack of paper. The manuscript tradition existed as a way of storing information, but Europe lagged behind East Asia and its woodblock printing until printing with moveable type spread throughout society in the years after Gutenberg.

Methods of making books have differed somewhat according to time and place. There are various different kinds of binding in use, such as the fukurotoji, or pouch binding, method, and a certain variation in terms of size. But the codex format arose in just two places: East Asia and Western Europe. The format was developed independently in both places–the two cultures had no influence on each other in this respect. Essentially, the codex has survived as the format of books as we know them today: a collection of around a hundred or two hundred bound pages, essentially of a size that people can hold comfortably in their hands. An average two-page spread might contain around twelve hundred to sixteen hundred characters in Japanese, or around four thousand letters and punctuation marks in the case of an alphabetic text. This is thought to be about the limit in terms of what people can easily take in at once. A book loses readability if it becomes too big. On the other hand if the amount of information contained over two pages is too small, turning the pages all the time becomes a nuisance. That’s why books intended to convey information in print–as opposed to art books and other publications that prioritize design–generally follow this format, which is user-friendly in terms of human physical capacity.

A book with two hundred pages or so is around the limit of what we can comfortably hold in our hands or carry in a bag–or put on top of the desk without it getting in the way. It’s a format that fulfills a number of different criteria, and it has become the standard for books throughout the world. It has all kinds of uses: it makes a perfect pillow or paperweight, for example. And if you put a hard cover on it, you can stand it up as well as lay it on its side. This is the format that has become the norm.

Books, Studies, and the Rise of Scholarly Culture

KŌNO Chinese and Japanese books were historically stored on their sides, weren’t they?

KABAYAMA That’s how it used to be. Things have changed since then of course–in Japan first, and recently in China too. But in the past, books were not produced in a format that allowed them to be stood up easily, and the norm was to lay them on their sides, organized by numbers on the spines. The sight of a neat line of matching spines is enough to give a book collector a thrill. Regardless of whether he will ever actually read them or not, there is a kind of intellectual satisfaction that comes from seeing them all lined up in a set. It was this that gave birth to the scholar’s study and the culture that went with it.

Particularly famous in this regard are the Korean yangban, scholarly officials who were members of the ruling class until the abolition of the court system in the early twentieth century. The yangban used to decorate their studies with books–laid on their sides–and vases of plants and flowers next to them, developing a unique and sophisticated culture: the scholar as connoisseur. One of the main purposes of the study in yangban culture was to express the sophistication, intellectual achievements, and overall aesthetic good taste of the individual. It was the custom of the yangban to collect a complete set of the Analects of Confucius or a similar work of classical Chinese literature and make their way slowly through them. The culture was quite different from what developed in China and Japan.

European studies tended to be rather small spaces, where scholars used to line up their books and writing materials and display works of art. Because of the relatively limited size of the studies, the study (or studio) was often referred to with a diminutive suffix, as studiolo. A culture developed from the practice of bringing books to a desk, which also served as furniture, to be read. Naturally, this could not have happened without the codex format.

Books in Europe were not originally bound at the printing stage. Instead, people would buy the pages of a book and take them to a specialist binder to be bound. So although the shape and size of the studies varied, in both Europe and East Asia a culture developed of decorating a study as an aesthetic space. This was all thanks to the existence of the codex format. In contrast with Europe, the East Asian tradition originally wasn’t particularly interested in binding. Nowadays the situation is different–not just in Japan of course, but recently in China too, where previously book designs could hardly have been more perfunctory and functional. Germany organizes an international book design competition. Europeans used to win far more prizes than anyone else, but nowadays many books from China and South Korea have started to do well. Naturally, the real point of a book is to read what’s written inside–but books are also material objects, and the binding and page design are important aspects of this. The energy that people put into these aspects remains undiminished.

This will probably continue to be the case even in the age of computers and other electronic devices, and will continue to influence the design of the study and the arrangement of the devices around the room. Computers are available in all kinds of different colors these days, and design is becoming more important. From a long-term perspective, this can be seen as a continuation of the traditional culture that developed around the scholar’s study. In that sense, this too is part of the cultural inheritance of the book format.

KŌNO When the iPad was launched, the situation Steve Jobs chose to demonstrate the new device was of a person relaxing on a living room sofa.

KABAYAMA The Kindle too is popular because of the way it matches people’s requirements in terms of its weight and size. It offers diversity of function and potential that you can hold in your hands.

KŌNO Part of the enjoyment of dealing with books comes from the tactile pleasure of touching and turning the pages. The new devices have also incorporated this aspect of the book, experience as well.

KABAYAMA You’re not actually physically turning the pages, but the data is displayed in the form of consecutive pages. So the old format, of getting information by turning the pages in a book–has been incorporated more or less unchanged in the latest digital gadgets. This is another indication of the long-term historical perspective of the book format.

KŌNO At the same time as the development of the codex format, the contents of the book also gradually improved, with refinements in the organizational structure of the book, such as a title and list of contents.

KABAYAMA Little by little, yes. Of course, even back in the days when everything was written on scrolls, they were already using a simple numbering system to keep track of things: volume 1, chapter 1, and so on. But with a rolled-up scroll of material, finding the part you want–chapter 8, section 5, for example–is terribly time-consuming. It was only really with the invention of the codex that searching for content in this way became practical. But even so, a tidy table of contents didn’t just emerge spontaneously as soon as the codex became the standard format. In fact, it took around a thousand years for page numbers to become established. The process began in the third century, but it was only from around the seventh or eighth century that arranging a book into chapters became the norm, and not till the end of the fifteenth that systematic numbering by pages arrived. The practice of printing the title on the spine also basically dates from the sixteenth century, not long after Gutenberg.

This lack of organization makes things extremely difficult for those of us in later times, of course. Since there are no page numbers, all you can do is refer to the “upper face of folio 85,” or the “reverse side of folio 88.” The technical terms are recto (for the upper-facing side) and verso (for the lower-facing side). In fact, because of the lack of page numbers, it sometimes happened that people would get the count wrong, and what is numbered as folio 88 actually turns out to be folio 89, and so on!

So although it’s uncertain as we enter the age of digital publishing whether the paper book format will survive, I think we can safely say that a culture that has accumulated such achievements over such a long period isn’t going to disappear overnight. The diverse culture of the book will be handed down to future generations–and is, in fact, already being adopted and adapted by today’s digital information media.

Taking Root

KŌNO In terms of the beginning of a new digital age, there is a tendency for people to get a bit carried away with the idea of this as a time of “crisis.” Some of the unbridled enthusiasm and praise for digital books has perhaps been somewhat misleading and added to the confusion. But there’s no doubt that we’re facing major changes.

Publishers and other people involved in the trade are understandably concerned–especially since the industry is still quite compartmentalized and not well set up for adapting quickly to change. But external conditions are changing so incredibly fast that the industry cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. In this sense the situation really is reminiscent of the time when Japan was pressured into opening itself to the outside world in the mid-nineteenth century. If the industry doesn’t change its way of thinking and adapt to these changes, it risks being left behind by the shifts in the market and ending up with nothing.

KABAYAMA Certainly the market will decide the fate of books as commercial products. In this sense, it is absolutely essential for publishers, agents, and booksellers to keep a close eye on developments from a market-oriented point of view. The industry is not in a position to complain about the situation or whine about how much better the world would be if things were done differently. We need to stay attuned to developments in the wider world beyond publishing. At the same time, I think the reluctance to jettison the resale price maintenance system here in Japan could become a serious problem for the industry. Although the system has had significant advantages for the industry in the past, today I think we have no alternative but to start getting rid of it gradually, rather than struggling to prolong the current isolationist system, propped up by fixed prices. This is something we should start on right away, taking advantage of the changes taking place. Digital publications aren’t covered by the fixed-price system, for example. I think the parties concerned need to accept the changes and take steps to abandon the system gradually.

Another interesting problem is the argument that our minds don’t really take in information unless it’s presented to us in book format. According to this argument, when information and data is transmitted to us via a screen or monitor without us actually turning the pages as we read, the information doesn’t get transmitted into our brains properly. Some cognitive scientists argue that although we follow the words on the screen, and click from one thing to the next convinced that we have found the ideal means of searching for information, ultimately the facts just flicker across the surface of our consciousness and don’t seep down any deeper at all. They may well be right.

KŌNO On a related note, digital textbooks are rapidly being introduced into schools, almost without any debate. This may well have benefits in terms of convenience and user-friendliness, but there is a worry that we might be eliminating something more fundamental from our children’s education.

KABAYAMA Some people argue that we should turn all our blackboards into digital screens, and instead of textbooks have each student use a small handheld computer terminal. They say that this would lead to a more appropriate and effective education. But words and letters in book format are what provide true nourishment for the soul. Obviously, a computer is more convenient when you need to find information quickly. But even though the technology is superior at searching for information, when it comes to changing or deepening human understanding, information on a computer screen will never provide the same intellectual nourishment as a printed book that people can read with their own eyes and turn with their own hands. There are two different routes for getting information into the brain: the data-search route that computers excel at and the cognitive capacity of the human mind. There is an argument that says there is no way to cultivate this capacity except by reading printed matter at an appropriate speed.

I think it’s possible to draw an analogy with plants. Think of the trunk, branches, leaves, and flowers of the plant above ground, with the roots below. To get the flowers to bloom more quickly or more attractively, you have to carry out a skillful dialogue with the environment. You need to be able to get the necessary information from the external environment as quickly as possible. But all of this is supported by the root system underground, which represents the information handling–the cognitive ability, if you will–of the plant. The invisible subterranean roots are absolutely essential if plants are to flourish and flower over the years. The worldview, or cognitive format, that is accumulated and stored in the roots is what decides the fate of the plant.

We can say something similar about human cognition. By making children read books in school during their formative years, we have perhaps encouraged a certain ability to develop in their minds–laid down a certain kind of root system, if you like–perhaps without understanding exactly the mechanism of what we were doing. If we replace this with digital media and introduce a system of education that concentrates exclusively on processing information, then the roots will fail to grow. Instead, the trunk and branches and the rest of the system aboveground will grow out of all proportion, and eventually the plant will topple under its own weight.

Our children will be like plants that flower but never bear fruit. We need to draw on the findings of cognitive science and educational psychology and come up with a more appropriate way of dealing with the new technology. This is an excellent opportunity to bring researchers and scientists on board and think again about what reading really means and to come up with a better scientific understanding of the issues involved.

The Shape of Things to Come

KŌNO Both approaches are valid and important, in other words–the challenge is to find a way of bringing them together without losing a sense of balance.

KABAYAMA That’s right. It’s not as though all our old frameworks or know-how in terms of understanding the world have suddenly been made obsolete by the advent of information technology. Books on paper will not disappear as a result of digitization. It would be nonsense to suggest that people have to choose between digital or analog media. Of course it is perfectly possible for them both to exist alongside each other. The issue is what kind of decisions we make as individuals in order to achieve the right sort of balance.

The position for the publishing industry as a whole will definitely become more difficult, relatively speaking. But it is the responsibility of those of us who work with books to ensure that the unique advantages of books remain relevant to the modern age, while carrying on the historical role that books have performed over the ages. In that sense, the role or mission of editors as compilers and arrangers of knowledge will only become more important in the future. I don’t want people to be distracted by worries that they might be out of a job if the book format disappears.

The same thing is true of libraries. Libraries don’t produce books themselves, but in order to provide satisfactory information transmission services to the public, they make a selection of several hundred volumes out of the eighty thousand or so published every year. Another important part of a library’s work is to encourage reading in children by organizing story time hours and so on. We are no longer living in a demand-driven society like Europe in the Middle Ages, where all you had to do was to buy in a bunch of manuscripts and wait for people to flock in to read them. Editors, publishers, and librarians have a lot in common in terms of the problems they face. People often say that Japan lags behind other countries in terms of its library culture, but the numbers of libraries are increasing steadily, and children are reading more too, thanks to the “Ten Minutes Reading in the Morning” movement and story time sessions for children in libraries.

Interestingly enough, there is a clear correlation between the frequency of library use and the scores achieved by children from each prefecture in national standard scholastic achievement tests. Akita Prefecture is a good example, with the highest scores of any prefecture in Japan. I don’t think it matters particularly at this stage what children read–it could be a magazine or anything, really–but the experience of seeing the world through words and pictures has a profound effect on children’s developing patterns of thought and on their intellectual curiosity. The generation that reads the most in Japan at the moment is made up of middle-aged people in their fifties and sixties. At this age, the mental stimulation of reading can bring energy into a person’s life. For children, reading brings educational benefits, but for older people it is more about making their lives richer and more rounded.

KŌNO We could describe this as the real strength of books.

KABAYAMA The display on a computer screen is also made up of a collection of letters, so fundamentally there’s no difference. But in the case of the children in Akita Prefecture, the children are responsible for finding and bringing the books or magazines they want to read. That process of finding the right material is probably quite inefficient, but it’s also probably well matched to the speed of our thought processes.

KŌNO Some people might argue that all you have to do to solve the problems inherent in reading digital materials is to follow the display slowly with your eyes. But it’s easy to get frustrated when you are faced with one of these screens. If the device doesn’t boot up right away, or takes a bit of time to process the data, you start to get fidgety and impatient.

KABAYAMA I wish they would come up with a screen that would really let you take your time reading. Once you start searching for information, the focus automatically shifts to speed. And maybe things have become too fast. Maybe there is too much information displayed on one screen. These are all issues of screen design technology, however, and it may well be that in time a display is developed that imposes a smaller burden on the reader, similar to books. For this to happen, developers need to give more attention to the mental processes that take place in our minds when we read books and to the dynamic that underlies people’s mental activities. I think that this is an area where scientific research and development of technology have been slow to develop. Speed, or the number of gigabytes of capacity a device has, is becoming the be-all and end-all.

To put it another way, print culture has given rise to a rich heritage of wisdom and insight in terms of human mental activities, and I’d like to see more of this incorporated into IT technology. In the final analysis, I think it’ll be all right even if books and paper media disappear. But this is based on the proviso that an alternative technology is developed first that can take the place of the precious historical heritage that books represent. Until that happens, forget about it. But if new IT technology comes along in the future that can take the place of books, then there is no reason why we have to stick with the format we have now.

Fundamentally, this represents both a responsibility and an opportunity for East Asia and Western Europe, the two cultures that developed the codex format and invented printing. Of all the traditional cultures in the world, these were the only two regions to develop books and printing on their own. In this sense, I think we have a major responsibility.

Ensuring Quality

KŌNO I understand the Printing Museum has been seeing increasing numbers of visitors from East Asian countries, such as China and South Korea. Are there concrete movements underway in that connection?

KABAYAMA At the moment people are more interested in the practical uses of IT technology. Making an index by hand or compiling a catalog–these were activities that the scholars of East Asia carried out for hundreds of years, but with today’s digital technology anyone can do these things in next to no time. There is an awareness of the need to find better ways to put this practical technology to use and to push things forward in a way that produces fewer mistakes. At the time of the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites destroyed machines in protest, but everyone realizes how useless that would be today. You can smash things up as much as you like, but the next machine will still come rolling off the assembly line just the same.

There is no doubt that people in the publishing world are really struggling. Particularly once the contents of the National Diet Library are digitized, it will become possible to acquire books much more cheaply than now. So at some stage it will be necessary to come to an agreement. Practically speaking, this means deciding what is to be done about payments. Scholarly journals are already run on a system that might be more widely applied in the future, whereby journals supply data to the National Institute of Informatics and receive payment through the Japan Reprographic Rights Center. A publisher might supply the digital data for a learned article for two years after its original publication date, for example, after which any user of the service will be free to access and download the contents of the journal. This obviates the need for the journal to hold onto the data after two years have passed, and it’s clearly a huge benefit to the user.

In terms of rights and payments, there are still issues that need to be overcome, but the road we need to take is beginning to become apparent. It may be that publishers who have specialized in journals of this kind will lose out, but that’s something people will have to resign themselves to. The question remains of what to do about regular books. People may just have to get used to the idea that books will be given a two-year period of grace, after which the data will be deposited in the National Diet Library for users to access whenever they want. There have already been considerable developments in this direction.

KŌNO Fundamentally, then, you agree with the ideas put forward by Nagao Makoto, the librarian at the National Diet Library?

KABAYAMA Basically, I think the ideas are sound, setting aside for the moment conditions relating to payment and so on. His ideas sparked massive protest at first–but people soon changed their tune when the Google issue came up and starting calling on him for help! The issue of payments is the biggest hurdle; probably in that respect the proposals need a bit more fine-tuning.

KŌNO In terms of who will be responsible for the stable and ongoing production of our books and other publications, I like to think we will manage to avoid the kind of market structure that would put our devoted publishers and editors out of work. Building an adequate intellectual foundation for national life is a vital part of national strategy, and user-friendliness is an important part of this. But it’s also essential to consider how we will support and maintain the production side of the industry, which is responsible for producing the high-quality content that is an essential precondition for producing that intellectual foundation.

KABAYAMA In the digital age, when everything is available on an “on-demand” basis, and when anyone can produce a book, the editors and publishers who commission and put out books of real value have a more important role to play than ever. Even more talented people will need to produce even higher quality material than in the past, taking responsibility for everything, including the question of what happens to the books they produce. This is the privilege as well as the responsibility of editors. The social responsibility of editors and publishers is bigger than ever before.

I think in an age when the National Diet Library is being completely digitized, it’s essential to think of a framework for providing steady and ongoing support to these talented publishers and editors. This is a role that libraries can perform. Instead of just simply lending out books from their collection, they need to ensure that high-quality publications of this kind stay in circulation and do not disappear. Designing a relatively straightforward system for making this material readily accessible is the shared responsibility of all the public libraries, headed by the National Diet Library.

Translated from an original interview in Japanese. [October 2010]