Despite its forward-looking title, The Economist’s 2014 essay “The Future of the Book” begins in retrospective mode, treating the reader to a potted history of the book’s “relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis” before moving on to examine the written word’s recent transformation into digital code. The essay concludes that despite e-readers and storytelling apps the future of the book as a physical object remains bright. But The Economist fails to explore why this is the case. Why, in the age of access, when digital devices offer a choice akin to the infinite array of books in Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel”, would anyone want to buy an actual, physical book?
According to Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library”, this desire to possess actual objects originates in childhood when we are all natural collectors. “Among children, collecting is [a] process of renewal” Benjamin observes, going on to relate it to “childlike modes of acquisition [such as] touching”, and describing how these infantile urges evolve into the adult’s need to “renew the old world – that is the collector’s deepest desire”.
What the “old world” and its “renewal” might mean are never fully explained. Perhaps the act of collecting can return us to a state of childhood innocence, or recreate defunct social and family structures, or help us reinvent ourselves through the ownership of commodities. This last interpretation, along with Benjamin’s focus on touch as a “mode of acquisition”, seems most pertinent as it echoes a claim made by The Economist that books are becoming “more pleasant to hold, feel and own”. It’s this conflation of touch and possession that can be argued to account for the enduring popularity of books as objects. Benjamin’s childish urge to hold and feel things – and feel proprietorial – is visible in the continuing robust sales of mainstream paperbacks and collectors’ hardbacks, and the plateauing of e-books at 30% of the market.
Such urges reflect comments from Scott Moyers, VP of Penguin, that it’s “imperative now to make the entire physical package itself special.” In this light, it’s unsurprising that serious collectors are splashing out on expensive editions of literary classics such as those produced by Arion Press, whose illustrated, goatskin-bound version of Don Quixote costs $4,000. What better way to reinvent yourself as a both a reader with significant cultural capital and a purchaser with commanding financial resources than through the acquisition of a high-end luxury object that is exquisite to the touch?
Virtually free, easily available content has also transformed the ways in which music is collected and consumed. The mainstream audience that reads e-books but still buys paperbacks also uses digital devices and platforms to listen to MP3s and yet still buys CDs. And the same kind of specialist collector fetishises beautifully packaged 180 gram vinyl records – i.e. high status objects that just happen to serve as medium for content.
While Benjamin explores the relationship between the individual’s “deepest desire” and book collecting in an almost Freudian manner, his Frankfurt School contemporary Theodor Adorno uses a more Marxist approach in his 1938 critique of the music industry, “On the Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening”.
In this essay, Adorno witheringly observes that music has been industrialised. He dismisses “hit song[s]” as “standardized products” and decries the misappropriation of serious music as “an advertisement for commodities one must acquire”. He deplores the manner in which music is often experienced out of context as at concerts where “[t]he minuet from Mozart’s E Flat Major Symphony, played without the other movement, loses its symphonic cohesion”. To Adorno, music has become a set of commodified fragments, a “pot-pourri” that transforms the listener “into an acquiescent purchaser” who, unable to properly absorb and critique the music they hear, passively experiences it merely as a series of “isolated moments of enjoyment”.
Today, the experience of the listener is even more isolated and fragmented. The popularity of iTunes shuffle, Spotify radio and Youtube up next means that songs float in a seemingly random sea of musical content. Any residue of meaning and cohesion intended by an artist is further broken down by a cultural push towards instant gratification that finds listeners impatiently prodding at screens and buttons in the hope of discovering a track that is more immediately pleasing. Here Benjamin’s “childish modes of acquisition” rear their head in the touching of digital devices. Listeners follow the desire to possess and control the digital commodities they buy and collect, and to renew themselves, through the desperate search for a track that best fits their current mood. It’s a mindset that can reduce a library of songs to a disorientating music concrete collage of ten second clips.
The ubiquity of unlawful filesharing hangs a question mark over a literal reading of Adorno’s “acquiescent purchaser”. Even the most inattentive observer can’t help but notice that mass illegal downloading has forced the music business to adopt channels of distribution that have slashed royalties and profits. The flipside of this is the willingness of listeners to accept the mechanisms that monetise their behaviour when they consume music via these new channels. Advert breaks on Spotify’s non-premium service are just the tip of this iceberg, the (not so) hidden depths of which take in algorithmically-targeted ads and playlists, notifications for concert tickets, and the big data that platforms such as iTunes sell to third parties. All of which makes the contemporary music fan sound very much like Adorno’s “acquiescent purchaser”, apathetically consenting to having their tastes monetised and their online behaviour and offline lives influenced and controlled by the new music moguls. It’s a state of affairs that reveals the random sea of music mentioned above as being not nearly so random after all. Rather, it is very closely controlled to reflect the interests of record labels, digital platforms and advertisers.
The kinds of physical processes described above – the urge to touch and hold a book, the impatient pressing of music players to bring up the next track – are what Marx calls “commodity fetishism” – the process by which we relate to the world around us through objects. “It is nothing,” Marx insists, “but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”
While Benjamin sees collecting as a mechanism “[t]o renew the old world”, one that can be interpreted as the reinvention of the self through commodities, Marx views both this process and the commodities involved as symbols of social, economic and cultural relations. Just as purchasing Arion Press’s $4000 Don Quixote tells those watching that here is a person with wealth and taste, so consuming a Mills and Boon romance or Bob Dylan CD makes a statement to those who see us do so. It signifies who we are, how we see ourselves, and where we fit into today’s socio-economic model. If anything, rather than depreciate the value of such relationships, a digital world where content can be easily, freely and invisibly acquired has made our connection to physical media such as books and records even more meaningful. The fact that we now buy fewer objects of this type gives a even second hand copy of Mozart’s E Flat Major Symphony or a cheap paperback of Don Quixote more power in their ability to negotiate our relations to the world around us.
This new found importance might not last long if digital entrepreneurs such as Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, founders of Spotify, have their way. While it’s doubtful Ek and Lorentzon are well-versed in Marx, they recognise the need for users to interact with each other – to create Marx’s “social relation[s] between men” – via the content their platform provides. With this in mind they have built tools such as Facebook links, shared and collaborative playlists, and most recently “Found Them First” – a microsite that identifies Spotify users who are musical tastemakers. If freely available music and its invisible consumption via streaming have eroded the cultural capital of owning Pulp records, or the bragging rights of being an early fan of Florence and the Machine, Spotify’s new tools allow atomised listeners to recreate these offline experiences through a digital version of Marx’s “fantastic…relation between things”. As they spread to other music platforms and beyond, these features will replace the signals we send and receive about ourselves and others when reading a physical book on public transport or browsing through a friend’s collection of vintage LPs. It may well be this reinvention of the old world, rather than the transformation of books and music into digital code, that sounds the death knell for tomes you can “hold, feel and own” and kills off the serious collecting of vinyl records.
 Benjamin, Shocken Books, New York, 2007.
 Adorno, Routledge, New York, 2001.
 Marx, Penguin, London, 1990.