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Further Proof that Print Books are Disappearing, Literally

“We think it’s a magical and poetic way of telling about a real problem.”

By Julieta Lionetti

Who hasn’t experienced that “instant gratification is not soon enough”? Every day marketers struggle with the fact that customers can’t wait, that their greed with their own time can make you lose dollars. Users’ convenience is the new religion and its come to stay even in the once lady-like publishing industry. But who’s ever heard of books that can’t wait?

When ad agency Draftfcb won a gold medal at the Cannes PR Lions on June 23 for printing a book in disappearing ink, their client, the Argentine boutique publisher Eterna Cadencia, gained global media attention that the authors themselves never dreamt of. Named The Book That Can’t Wait, the text was silk-screen printed in deep magenta. Rather than taking a new release, Eterna Cadencia brought an old book up to the current standards of the industry — an anthology of Latin American short-stories that had been published using standard off-set technology in 2009.

Launched to the press and friends at a chic breakfast at Eterna Cadencia’s Palermo headquarters on the threshold of the Buenos Aires Book Fair, it attracted the attention of the local press at a time when the town started brimming with events and performances. An unknown quantity of copies were sealed in plastic bags and came with the warning that, once opened, the words would start fading away. The book would only wait two months for you. Oh the pleasure of the fleeting year, what ironies have I felt — the original title of the anthology, which collects 20 young writers born between 1970 and 1980, was El futuro no es nuestro (The Future Isn’t Ours).

Vanishing writing isn’t new to Spanish literature. It plays a leading role in the Cardenio’s folly episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Wandering the Sierra Morena in search of adventures that continually dodge him, Don Quixote finds Cardenio’s “librillo de memoria” (a mnemonics notebook) by the roadside, filled with sad poems and letters to a lover who wronged him. The object — almost archaeological to us — was a set of bound tablets covered with bitumen, in which you would inscribe things you wanted to remember with the help of a stylus. Bitumen will yield under the pressure of a hand or under a new trace by the stylus, creating a irretrievable palimpsest lost in time. Later, Don Quixote will use Cardenio’s “librillo de memoria” to write a farewell letter to Dulcinea and a letter of credit to Sancho. Both addressees being illiterate and the writing of a disappearing quality, the “librillo de memoria” stands for the missing link between oral culture and the rising Spanish literature.

Eterna Cadencia dubbed their experience as “magic”, and indeed it was. “Magic ink” has been used at birthdays parties and for practical jokes for decades. It’s a water-based pH indicator that changes from colored to colorless when exposed to air. As paper allows less interaction with air than fabric, the stains — in this case the writing — stay longer. A highly basic solution, its ammoniac smell startled some journalists who opened the bag before breakfast that morning, almost as much as the fading typography gave them a ready-made sense of urgency.

Twenty years ago, William Gibson had a hand in making writing disappear. Agrippa (a book of the dead), an art book made in collaboration with artist Dennis Ashbaugh and publisher Kevin Begos Jr., had a disk buried in its last pages. It contained a poem in memory of Gibson’s father that would display its 305 lines just once, as an encryption program made each line vanish into nothingness, locking it irretrievably in an RSA-based code. It stood for the missing link between the codex book and the new digital medium; it stood for a prophecy of RAM. Not least it was a metaphor for the impossibility of reaching our dead.

The tension between inscription and obliteration lies at the core of our written culture. It underscores both our fear of oblivion and our trepidation regarding the untamed proliferation of texts that might render the whole useless.

From the very beginning, authors have addressed this issue and, at the same time, they have built their works giving serious thought to the production conditions that each medium had offered. What happens when an advertising agency and a publisher work together in what can only be seen as a parody of the function of the author? If you contrive the medium, you have already made the message void.

“We think it’s a magical and poetic way of telling about a real problem,” said Draftfbc Regional Creative Director Javier Campopiano, referring to The Book That Can’t Wait. “We wanted to make a book that was a message in itself. A book that will encourage us to read these authors before their stories truly disappear in front of our eyes,” he stated. As the promotional video dramatically points out: “If people don’t read their first books, they’ll never make it to a second.” The publisher added that a book with a ‘lifespan’ strengthens the bond between new authors and their readers — ensuring that books are read quickly.

Books already have a lifespan, magic ink or not. And it’s not much longer than the expiration date of a water-based pH-indicator exposed to air. Stock turnover has been accelerating for the last decade to the point that returns on titles that don’t hit a home run on their first at-bat will kill an author’s career. Nowadays, the Cormac McCarthy who wrote Suttree would never have seen All The Pretty Horses in print. Digital hasn’t come to the rescue either. The terms of e-book licenses to libraries limit the times an e-book can be checked out; and if your e-tailer of choice goes out of business, all your DRM ‘protected’ files will be irretrievable.

If you are fearful that “The Book That Can’t Wait” stands for the deep crisis in which the book industry finds itself in these changing times, just relax. Eterna Cadencia’s tweet will cheer you up:

“The book that can’t wait DOES NOT exist. It’s just an idea of ad agency Draft. They made very few copies for journalists. None for the people.”

— Eterna Cadencia (@eternacadencia) June 27, 2012

And a tip: if you are the puzzled owner of a copy of The Book That Can’t Wait, and still want to read or re-read the short stories that had already faded away, pick a piece of cotton and a bottle of ammonia. Put your kitty in a safe and well-ventilated place. Soak the piece of cotton first, and then apply to the page. Magic! The letters will come back, if only for a while. Repeat the operation. This exercise will train your patience and help to change your mind about instant gratification.

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