Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Age of the Book

As we move further into the age of the electronic "book," it's worth reflecting on the profound ways in which books have influenced the course of history, and indeed have shaped our very consciousness, for nearly two thousand years. There was a time, of course, when the book or "codex" was a new technology, replacing the scroll as the predominant means of recording and storing written texts; the video (Book 1.0) shown here takes a humorous look at a monastic scribe who has had to call the Help Desk to assist him in using this unfamiliar new medium. From this time -- probably somewhere around the first century A.D., through to the present, the book has embodied the very idea of learning, of storytelling, of collecting and gathering, of preserving knowledge.

As the Jesuit scholar Walter J. Ong pointed out, though, writing, in a fixed form, did more than simply store information for later retrieval; it restructured our consciousness. By giving us the sense that knowledge could possess substance and persistence, even when not stored in our own heads, writing gave birth to the very earliest stirrings of philosophy. Plato, of all people, warned against this new technology, saying that if people relied on putting things down in writing we would weaken our faculty of memory -- the irony is that the only reason we know he said this is that someone wrote it down. The book gave birth to many of our modern genres, from the novel to the biography to the encyclopedia (which last form, for better or worse, has almost completely departed the physical world of the Britannica and moved into the electronic space of the Wikipedia). There were libraries before there were books, of course -- parts of the library of Ashurbanipal, established in the 7th century BCE, still survive today -- but the book made libraries uniquely indexable, capable as they were of displaying relevant information on their spines while placed so as to take up minimal space on the shelf. The development of the printing press by Gutenberg in the fifteenth century created what's often been called a revolution -- and yet it was primarily a revolution in the means of production, and in making books affordable, not in the physical shape or content of the book itself. It was on account of the printed book, and the newspapers and magazines that followed, that a world in which literacy was possible, even expected, for everyone came into being -- a world on which the Internet, too, depends.

And the Age of the Book is still with us. E-books, although they mimic some of the qualities of printed volumes, still have a long way to go to match their advantages; their current market share -- 20 percent -- is the highest it's ever been, but its future growth will likely still be gradual. E-books certainly won't wipe out physical books in the way that MP3's wiped out compact discs, or streaming video took away most of the market for DVD's and Blu-Ray discs. In the end, a book is a concept, and as such, it's likely to be with us for a very long time indeed.


  1. I certainly hope that books don't become obsolete! There's just something special about being able to hold a book in your hands and feel the pages that really makes reading for fun worth it.

  2. It is difficult to imagine a time when books– or any means of accessible writing– did not exist, especially when born and raised in a generation that has been consistently exposed to thousands of different mediums used to shape consciousness. Although I am grateful for the means of technology I have at hand, often times I find myself using my inferior human brain as a mere second memory source behind my smartphone. Whether it be addresses, events, or even sometimes plans later in the week, I store a little reminder in my phone to help me remember things... things that I ought not be forgetting in such a short period of time! This age of technology sure is bittersweet.