Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate


Michael Jackson and Countess Donhöff at eye level

The Fair is business, but it is also a celebration of the convergence two creative impulses, that of the book printers and designers, and that of the authors themselves. A children’s book by a South Korean authoress catches my eye, a tale about a girl with a fox on her head. A simple tale, not trying to be funny, just delightfully illustrated. Non-book articles are also a source of genuine creativity, but Hall 4.0 is just out of my two-day range, so I can only gaze briefly. The business of bookselling, too, requires genuine skill. Many publishers still have the courage and backbone to do less popular projects, Michael Jackson thus finds a spot next to a bio of Hitler-opponent Countess Marion Donhöff (biographies are big anyway, I suspect we are always curious about what other people are doing). On that score, the Book Fair never seems to change. But each year, it has a few big issues to confront

Off the books: liber digitalis 

Enthusiastic lip service about iPhone cookbooks

The big buzz, of course, is the inexorable progress of the digital soldier ants through the old, old market structures of the printing industry. Its all about  eBooks, iBooks, Web-based books and Internet-based business models, and the biggest elephant in the room: the Kindle, born on the 19th of October. A small amount of space, about 2000 square feet (about 200 square meters)  is devoted to “Books & Bytes.” It exhibits several possibilities for reading electronic books, but none yet really replicate “the book feeling.” You can’t thumb pages quickly (yet), or find a page serendipitously. And if they fall over the side of a bed, for example, they may well break. Vodafone is promising to send end-users novels on their mobile phones (I’ll try and then report), and three experts in the field of cooking – there we go again – discussed the sheer brilliance of having recipes with great pics beamed to your iPhone. “You can take it along with you when shopping…”  one of them says. Next innovation down this line: the plastic cover to protect the device from spatter. Whatever: I suspect that next year, Amazon and Google, once odd fellows, now giant players, will probably own half of Hall 3.0… And watch for the next development promised by the Wi-Fi Alliance (Intel, Apple, Cisco are the main culprits) from Silicon Valley: Wi-Fi Direct. This system will, if I understand it correctly, piggyback Wi-Fi from one enabled device to the other, no need for Bluetooth, no need for Wi-Fi in some cases, no fuss, no muss, and a lot of electronic garbage from the last generation of innovative junk.

lr-FFM-tower of books
Those pesky hardcopy books
 All this e-stuff naturally raises the hackles of more traditional folk. Philosophers, perhaps, should start getting involved, but they are too busy these days eking out a living as taxi drivers, key account managers, down-and-out editors and business gurus. The authors’ societies (and hence the authors and rights holders) are justifiably worried. Google’s book digitizing project is quite controversial… The Fair edition of The Bookseller has an interview with Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, regarding the pending Book Settlement. He is naturally eager for rights holders to sign into the Google library – and admittedly there are some who believe firmly that Google is acting as the world’s e-brarian out of pure altruism, just as there are those who believe that Windows Vista is an improvement over XP.  “Rights holders are obviously free to make whatever decision they wish,” says Turvey (thank you master!). “We believe the public benefits when rights holders have the choice to participate or not in its (the Settlement’s) terms and there is competition in the digital book space.” Right. The question is, what happens to the rights holders who decide not to cast in their lot with Google. Turvey is not clear about that, but he does have a very nice smile on his face. He must be a nice man. And he works in the upper echelons of a company with a very cute name.
Future libraries for the digi-incrowd


The hellish vision: A digital content aggregator puts together novels and fact books that can be downloaded onto books with Wii-like pages that replicate turning. No fuss, no muss with those greedy authors, sourpuss editors, bean-counting lawyers  and grumpy literary critics. The lovers of real books will simply become the savages in the year X of Our Google. And that is the point made by Dr. Christian Sprang, legal adviser at the Stock Exchange Association of the German Book Trade at a debate on the thrid day of the Fair. He wants rights holders to have an opt-in option, not just the opt-out one. And Professor Roland Reuss simply says Google has broken the law by digitizing books without permission.


Joseph E. Hanhart, still in the savannah of real print

Niches.  The last refuge of the real book in the future? The Book Fair is full of them, and some still smell of printer’s ink, of hot presses, of red wine and even a touch of sulphur. Meet Joseph E. Hanhart of Editions Heuwinkel from Carouge (by Geneva), Switzerland. His bright blue eyes are full of humor, he still holds books in a firm yet loving manner. He publishes art books in varying sizes, each done with great care. The program also includes books on yoga and on Switzerland. He feels the market does need the diversity and he is optimistic. “In nature, you have brush and you have tall, visible trees,” he points out, “and without the grasses, the weeds and all that stuff, those tall trees could not survive.” But nature and human nature are two different shoes as they say in German.  We will eat up our entire planet, suck out its entrails and raze its forests just to get hamburgers cheaply and fuel to run our cars.

And so we get onto talking about bigger things. Hanhart is a genial storyteller in at least three languages. He suddenly mentions the 450th anniversary of the University of Geneva, which was founded by Calvin. One of the speakers was Stephen Hawking. Someone in the audience asked what god was doing before his seven days of heavy labor. “Preparing hell for the likes of you,” answered Hawking. Asymmetrical juxtapositions replacing dialectics.


Please check Part III: Chinese Checkers

8 Replies to “Fahrenheit 2009 Part II: Digital Debate”

  1. I think we’ll find that the older generations will prefer to stick with more traditional methods of reading a book. Sitting in a comfy armchair in front of a roaring fire in the depths of winter holding and tapping one of those Sony reader things just wouldn’t seem right somehow. Not the same without a bookmark and pages to turn either.

    1. A few electro-generations might make the difference though. I guess that in about 100 years or so books will be a thing of the past, the way corsets are today. Seems sad, somehow. And I wonder about the wisdom of placing all that knowledge in the hands of a single firm.

  2. I don’t know about that comparison of corsets to books, it seems more to me like the horse and the automobile. Maybe we’ll be able to enjoy books in new ways and teach them new tricks. As long as the wisdom does not remain exclusively in the hands of a single firm. It’s amazing to be able to have the information, the images, the direction you need when you want it, where you want it. It could lead to much more knowledge and understanding on the planet. There will always be both the beauty and the beast. Thank you Marton for some very enjoyable reading and thank you Hawking for putting people in their place!

    1. Love Hawking’s humor indeed…. Thanks for the nice comment… I think the single firm bit is dangerous, too… At some point they always want to “take over” or make decisions.

  3. In the past, I believed memorizing the contents of “electronic” books might be more difficult than memorizing the contents of traditional books.

    Today, for me there is no difference.

    Even reading news articles on the Web is a normalty now.

    It’s more going to be a problem of payment !
    Today, many — not to say nearly ALL — news articles on the Web are for free.
    No costs, no charge for the readers.
    In the long run, that cannot work as journalists want to get paid for their work.
    Therefore, news articles on the Web will not be “free of charge” forever.

    1. Thanks Eckhardt, that that cannot work for journalists is absolutely correct, especially the freelancers.

      Payment: indeed, that is where diversity is going to have to be maintained by hook or by crook. Otherwise a few big firms will divvy up the pie, I fear, three for me, none for you… We are already feeling the effects. BTW: Note the Financial Times model, and now the Economist has changed its policies. Pay-for-news is coming, and it has to do with content management and DRM…. I’ll have to check that hall at next year’s Fair! 🙂

  4. What thoughtful & humorous writing! I’m still laughing as I write this. Please keep writing in English, Mr. Radkai–we really need you.

    As for Kindle and kind vrs print Books, it is happening around us, here in Boston. My favorite Headmaster at a private high school up the street, carries his Kindle everywhere, takes notes on what he reads, and has downloaded the Gita and Upanishads on it! Hmmm. That’s a recommendation worth noting.

    I get my NYTimes delivered daily, but also the Times Digest. Do I like reading online? not really, but I’m getting used to it… Didn’t I just read your article online? Do I still buy more books than I read/month….errrr, I hate to admit this, yes…. Do my 3 children buy books–age 30, 26, and 23? No. They download books onto their ipods for listening on short and long commutes, and trips of any length. What a huge difference this makes, i.e., back to oral story-telling & hearing. No earmarked pages, underlines, spacial references to find a line. Just listening. Hmmm. Old.

    Of course kids want the newest technology, so the Kindle and kind may flourish just from that alone. It will help reduce scoliosis in our children’s backs–as the book bag will bite the dust along with the text book. And that is good.

    I think the horse/car analogy is a good. A few will wander the wilderness of print books; but most will scroll electronic rectangles of all sizes.

    1. Very good points there Jaquelin…. thanks for the thoughtful response, and very good points about the e-reading. For studying material, great, and reading the news. Though I would say, I am condemned to writing online, simply by the overwhelming force of a system that has tied itself to something as ephemeral as electronic storage. The shift from hardcopy to electronics, in my view, has radically changed and severely impoverished the way we communicate in so-called communities. Again, though, it is the gatekeepers that worry me. And the fact that through electronics, one can actually change or erase a vast amount of information deemed irrelevant, or bad, or simply not “in.” That is definitely the narrative used by Turvey of Google. And that is why this year, I have had to give material away….

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