Sunday, November 16, 2014

The End of the Book

 I’ve just finished listening to a series of tapes called Writing and Civilization, which traces the origins of writing and the development of various writing systems throughout the world including how scholars of languages have worked to decode writing systems such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan glyphs and Linear B.  In the final episode, the lecturer, Marc Zender,  made the claim that by the year 2050 printed books will for all practical purposes be dead. Our children’s will no more look at books made of paper as something to read than we would at quills and ink as something to write with.  This seemed an amazing claim coming from a Harvard professor who is not only a self-professed bibliophile but whose entire career has been devoted to the study of writing.  At the same time, it seems extremely logical.

Taking the long view, this does not seem a surprising development.  Such radical change in reading media has taken place before.  The development of the codex (i.e. the book with pages) from the scroll and development of moveable type that made writing books long hand unnecessary are two obvious examples.  Moreover, as Zender points out, in the same way that from our current point of view the use of the printing press had advantages that made continued writing of books by long hand seemed doomed to obsolescence, the modern ebook (or any “book” on electronic media) has the advantage of  being cheaper, more portable and easier to replace than hard copy books, making the continued production  of traditional books other than as an art form unlikely to continue very far into the future.

Writing this, I am sitting in my own library surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. As someone who loves the physical feel of a book, who likes sitting with a cup of coffee 
and relaxing sprawled in a comfortable chair with a book on my lap, or simply pulling  a book off of a shelf and diving at random into the mind of some person at a distant place and time, the prospect that a generation after my death all of this will be mulch, or at best, vying for a spot on Antique’s Roadshow, is a bit daunting.  At the same time, as Zender points out, the scribe who worked by hand on manuscripts not doubt looked in the same way at the advent of the printed book with the same sense mixture of concern and wistfulness – as though some integral part of the civilization he knew and that seemed natural to him were being lost.
Nothing is going to stop the continued advent of the technological revolution.  It isn’t even an advent anymore, but an established fact.  Those of us old fogies who are refugees from the world of books and think that because we happen to be on Facebook that somehow we have made the transition should take another look at our lifeboat. It’s already sinking. Our children’s children’s world will be a new one, speaking a language that we are probably constitutionally incapable of learning. There is neither praise nor blame in this.  It is simply the way that history is moving.  I never rode to school on a horse as my father did, but we both got to where we had to go.

Being the visually oriented person I am, though, I do feel luck to have been born into history at time when print was at its apogee.  When you stop to think that before Gutenberg only the very rich could afford books and that it is only that for the past one hundred years of our country that most people are even literate and books readily available, it has been a great time to be alive.  Except for this very recent time, culture has been predominantly oral.  The bulk of the population did not learn by reading or communicate through print – they talked and listened. I think that I would have been a very bad fit for that kind of culture being both poor at expressing myself orally and not much better at remembering what I hear. With the unrepentant ramping up of electronic media, the chances are that we are returning to an oral culture once again.  Writing has become tweeting and it won’t be too long before the keyboard is obsolete.  We’ll simply talk to the computer and it will answer us.  We will be able eliminate the intervening printed media. It is more than just a bit ironic that those who used to laugh at the idea of the stereotypic paternalistic boss who dictated to his secretary rather than simply write for himself will once again, in effect return to dictating, albeit with an electronic secretary.

As Zender points out, books made of paper won’t disappear overnight. Those of us born into the print culture will continue to read and buy them (that is until book stores turn totally into Kindle and Nook stations) and we will still sit down and read those same storybooks our parents read to us to our grandchildren, passing on a tradition even as it ceases to be.  I’m not writing a requiem.  Quite the opposite.  It is fascinating being poised on this point in history, both able to look back on the history that has made us who we are, and looking forward to what the future might be for those that come after us. In the short run, however, I think I will just get up and grab a book from the shelf.    

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day

As anyone reading this blog probably knows, I just returned from Paris.  I with Lora, Maya, Lora’s brother Mike, his wife Bev and my niece Lauren.   It is hard to limit the number of superlatives one can toss out about Paris, but, as wonderful as that city was, the aspect of that trip that stands out the most in my mind today, was the side trip that we all took to Normandy.

Bev's father had been a decorated American fighter pilot in World War II. She had the diary that recorded in Hemingway-like sparseness, her father’s experiences during the invasion of the Allied Forces into Normandy in June of 1944 and wanted to visit the site where it had happened.   As someone who refused to be drafted during the Vietnam conflict, I've never been an aficionado of military history, but the day we spent on the Normandy beaches made us all take some baby steps towards the reality of the war for all those involved there.    We set out from Bayeux where we were staying, passing through the countryside where the German troops occupied the small towns and French resistance fighters snuck out of their homes at night to do whatever they could to thwart them.  We passed a church in one of the villages that is still being rebuilt and others, our guide explained,  completely disappeared.   

Our tour was limited to some of those beaches that American soldiers breached -  Utah, Pont Du Hoc and Omaha.  Walking across the landscape where concrete bunkers and remnants of fortifications still sit and where the surface of the land is still sculpted by the bombs that hit it gave a materiality to the events that took place there that all of us felt.  But for me, the moment that came closest to revealing some clue of how it must have felt to be there on D-Day was when we stood on Omaha beach at the edge of the water looking up at the cliffs where the German guns were sitting on that day and knowing that the only way there was to move was forward. 

In the twenty-first century, everyone knows that history is not a fact, but simply a narrative constructed by the winners to tell their story.  Even with the shards that we have to build it from – the diaries, the abandoned bunkers, scared landscapes – it is always going to be a protean tale.  Still, I think that having had the chance to visit the site where events occurred that have long since been subsumed into American mythology gave me the chance to toggle my own views.  I still won’t be rushing to join the Sons of the American Revolution, but at least, it has given me a bit more of an ability to participate in the collective memory that today, Veterans Day, represents.  And, if  I’m not mistaken, that is what national holidays are all about.