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.