Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Essential Bookness

There is in our town a fine institution of continuing education or “senior academy” called the Evergreen Forum.  Each year it offers in conjunction with the Senior Center a large number of courses impressive in their range and scope.  I have  taught a few courses in this program in the past, and in the spring I am scheduled to teach another—this one on eighteenth-century occultism and other matters raised in The Dark Side of the Enlightenment.  I have met many engaging people among the Evergreen seminarians, including Harry Pinch, whose wife has been over the years one of the Forum’s principal movers and shakers.
            Harry asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I was receptive to suggestions for weekly blog topics. I’ll take the opportunity to announce publicly that the answer to that question is affirmative.  My aim is “general interest”—a category perhaps not always or entirely coincident with my default religious and political opinions.  Harry had been struck by an essay by David Streitfeld entitled “Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind,” published in the New York Times “Technology” section in early December.  Harry wondered whether this stimulating piece might offer some grist for the bloguiste’s mill.  And of course it does.  Its subject very generally is the fascinating commerce between the printed book and the e-book.  Yes, I know--but this really is an excellent essay, and you should read it in its entirety, as I am engaging with only a few of its implications.
            Everybody knows that electronic technology can revolutionize the reading experience.  What Streitfeld is struck by is the reluctance of the book industry to let it do so.  You don’t need to turn pages in an electronic book.  However, makers of reading machines are going to extraordinary lengths to try to recreate the “feel” of turning a page.  Although the idea of an autographed or inscribed copy of an e-book ought to seem absurd on the face of it, canny Amazonians are inventing one.  I guess that if you can make an electronic cigarette, you can make an electronic anything.
But why?
            Although literacy commands a legitimate private sphere (personal letters, diaries, etc.) the great historical impulse in graphic communication is directed toward the public sphere.  I have lots of reasons to be interested in “publication”, broadly understood.  I am a reader and a writer, the owner of a library, an expert on medieval manuscripts, an amateur historian of printing, and an actual letterpress printer.  I conclude that all major developments in the history of publication have been driven by one or more of four considerations: the authoritative accuracy of the published text; the durability of the publishing medium; the number of copies that can be produced; and the cost of the publishing process.  The first consideration—accuracy of text—may take you by surprise; but many early printers considered the new option of authorial correction of proof sheets quite as important as the capacity for the multiplication of copies.  From the analytical point of view an electronic text satisfies all four desiderata as well or better than all previous modes of publication.  Yet many of us resist.  But why?
            Part of the answer—an important part—lies in universal habits of cultural conservatism.  “Most things that exist in the world,” said the great cultural anthropologist E. B. Tylor, “exist for the reason that they once existed.”  Contrary to popular academic belief the argument that “we have always done things that way” is among the most powerful one can muster.  We have always made books by the mechanical application of ink to paper—so long as “always” means perhaps a tenth part of the long history of publication and so long as we restrict ourselves to our own neck of the cultural woods.
            It is no easy thing, however, cleanly to separate the essential from the decorative.  That is a major point of Streitfeld’s essay.  The particular thought that captured Harry Pinch’s attention was this: “We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.” My late colleague and friend, Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, became famous for his concept of the “paradigm shift,” a rearrangement of the mental furniture so thorough-going as in effect to supplant an old “reality” and establish a new one.  Such, for instance, was the triumph of the Copernican astronomy over the Ptolemaic.
            But few shifts were so dramatic or so complete.  The perfection of durable writing surely qualifies, and perhaps, but only perhaps, so does the invention of movable types.  But Gutenberg’s technology, however incrementally improved, remained essentially the same for half a millennium.  Now letterpress has been trumped by offset lithography, the process used to produce every book that most people alive today have ever read.

            The matter is perhaps semantic, but I cannot consider the advent of lithography as a paradigm shift, any more than I can so regard the shift from scroll (words laid out in a single long roll) to codex (words laid out in sequentially bound discrete sheets).  That shift, incidentally, has been reversed on your computer screen.  There is very little theological difference between a Torah procession in a Jewish liturgy and the gospel procession in a Christian liturgy; but you will see fossilized in the contrast two historical moments in the history of writing and reading.

            So what is “the future of the book”?  There will not be a single future, but many.  It is possible to read writing produced in a myriad of forms: spray-painted on the sides of subway cars, traced by a finger on a steamed-up mirror, puffed into the cold air by a sky-writing airplane.  Some poor souls will doubtless come to think of a “book” as a fugitive sequence of pixels on a hand-held screen.  But how can there be a real book without the tactile ghosts of the type on the backside of a sheet of laid paper, or the smooth feel and smell of old calf?  And how can you really read it except with the aid of green-shaded glass lamps on a polished old library table?