“Imagine there’s no Heaven” is the opening line of the famous song by John Lennon.
“I imagine Heaven as a great library,” Jorge Luis Borges once said.
“It’s easy if you try,” the song goes on.
But imagining the future is not so easy.
We often think about people like George Orwell, Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clarke as visionaries who predicted the future. However, 1984 and 2001 were not exactly the same as in the famed novels of Orwell and Clarke. Our task is not that ambitious, one may say. To imagine the new world of writing and publishing is not to imagine a new world.
On the other hand, writing and publishing are perhaps paradigms of every modern culture, and thus, the systematic destruction of books is almost a necessary feature of every anti-utopia described in literary works: Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Orwell’s “1984.” Anti-utopias are totalitarian almost by default. Totalitarian societies always follow only one idea, one point of view, one book. The books, many books, are the realm of freedom, of many ideas, many points of view. That is why anti-utopias are generally perceived as book-destroying societies. Nevertheless, Milan Kundera’s anti-utopian idea, outlined in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” is somehow different. He sees hyperproduction as the new and improved way of demolishing the significance of books in our culture. And possibly he is right.
In the summer of 1992, the largest library in Bosnia was burned down, together with its thousands of books. Even days after the fire, pieces of paper were floating in the air. The newspaper said Bosnian cultural memory was wiped out. Less than two months later, only 200 or 300 miles to the north, the Frankfurt Book Fair was held. More than 6,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries presented a total of 300,000 titles, nearly 100,000 of them new publications. These two images—a burning library and an enormous book fair— are perhaps the symbols of writing and publishing at the end of the 20th century. Will they still be relevant after a quarter of the 21st?
Regarding the first image, one can only hope it will become unthinkable. However, we should always remember that we’ve already once said, “Never again,” or, “Nevermore,” but this did not prevent history from repeating itself. Many times hitherto it seemed impossible that books would ever again die at the stake, but in spite of it, the smoke of burning books rose to the sky. Nobody can guarantee it will not happen again.
Regarding the latter image, it is hard even to imagine how big the book fairs will probably be in 2025. The ancient proverb already seems inverted: In the publishing industry, one usually cannot see the tree for the forest. Or to be more conventional: To find a great book is to look for a needle in a haystack.
In 1969, Miroslav Krleza, the greatest Croatian writer, said, “What are the chances for a single book, even a masterpiece, to get the proper attention? Less than are the chances of a single drop of water in the Amazon.” In 1969, may I say, nobody could have dreamt of Amazon.com, but Krleza was really good at imagining the future.
imagining the future sometimes means describing one’s fears, but it can also be a kind of wishful thinking. The two abovementioned images are both somewhat fearful, though not in the same way, of course. Yet, I want my share of wishful thinking, also.
I imagine writing and publishing in the future will be closer to art than to business. I imagine the blurbs less preposterous and more precise. I imagine more honest and less corrupted book reviews. I imagine more curious readers, more serious editors, more responsible publishers, more imaginative writers.
I imagine writing and publishing in the future will be less concerned with profit. I imagine more bookshops with poetry books in their windows, while autobiographies of teenage movie stars are stacked behind the counter. I imagine publishers more interested in artistic quality than in best-seller lists. I imagine writers competing with themselves, not simply looking for cheap fame.
I imagine writing and publishing in the future will take advantage of new technologies, but not be ruled by them. I imagine long-lasting, beautiful, elegant books never defeated by electronic ones. I imagine people in cafes reading these books instead of glossy magazines. I imagine the internet, television, radio, cinema, entertainment industry, advertising and mass media not as enemies of books but as the means to their popularization.
I imagine writing and publishing in the future will take place in a world where reading fine literature is a crucial part of almost everyone’s experience. I imagine a world in which one’s favorite writer is a more important distinction than one’s nation. I imagine more people discovering the aristocratic beauty of reading. I imagine men, women and children reading everywhere: a young man and a young woman sitting on a bench in a park, reading W.H. Auden; a middle-aged physician on his balcony, reading Ian McEwan while his wife reads Ruth Rendell; a little girl laughing while her older brother reads Joseph Brodsky s nursery rhymes out loud; and an old man reading Joseph Conrad on board a ferry.
Maybe these things I am saying are not entirely realistic. Let them, then, be prophetic.