More reflections on the history of predicting the book’s demise.

"Mr R. Graves, Syracuse St, 2008" by Jake Shivery“The Book” has been dying for a long time. Although I don’t have any actual data to back this up, I sense that the cultural propensity to predict the the book’s demise is directly proportional to the amount of attention we pay to the adoption of digital technologies. More simply: the more computers we see, the more we thinks books are dying. And arguing (not for, in most cases, but the fact of) the death of the book has become so commonplace as to not even warrant more than a passing glance in popular media. I’ll spare you the bibliography of pop-references, but a quick look at the NYT archives, Wired magazine, Time, or any other publication related to books, writing, or publishing will offer a clear example of what someone looks like planning their own funeral. (Yeah, I’m planning on seeing Get Low at some point this week.) Okay. We get it. Books are dying. Or the book is already dead. Amazon, B&N, and Apple certainly are certainly making a lot of noise about it, too.

So this has been going on a long time. And it’s related to my dissertation. My first impulse (albeit it’s an OCD-informed impulse) was to do a little work to locate the first major publication arguing that the book is dying. But that’s no where near my dissertation. Instead, I thought I’d just start with one that’s pretty well known (read: sometimes referenced even today) and one that also captures the first wave of the-sky-falling-the-book-is-dying histrionics of the early nineties. Enter: Raymond Kurzweil.

[pullshow]In a three-part series for Library Journal in 1992, Kurzweil argues that the book-as-codex is going away. Not necessarily anytime soon, but probably sooner than people realize. Sounds familiar, right? But this was a time before the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, or GoogleBooks. Instead of looking around at the evidence that paper-books were dying, Kurzweil had to look backwards in order to make claims about the future. History informs the future. Sure. Nothing new. But I find his approach to be a bit less direct than this. And one from which book historians might learn something, even if it might be a cautionary tale.

In the series’s first installment, Kurzweil argues for an understanding of the book as a technology, and that every technology has a lifespan that stretches out across a predictable narrative. He splits this narrative into “seven distinct stages in the life cycle of a technology”:

  • precursor
  • invention
  • development
  • maturity
  • false pretenders
  • obsolescence
  • antiquity

Kurzweil was writing this article in the middle of the heyday of scholarship on hypertextuality. Text were becoming increasingly networked and intra-navigable. And it looked as though the future of textuality was upon us. (It was, by the way.) This all-too-reductive gloss of the milieu out of which Kurzweil’s predictions emerge allow us to understand a little more specifically the context to which he was responding. It seems obvious, now, that he would have argued that the book was in the “false pretenders” stage (post-maturity).

(one important thing to remember here about Kurzweil’s predictions (which are remarkably good, I think) is that he’s developing a model of technological lifecycle that can only be told in the past tense. At it’s simplest, his models suggests that technologies are new, they gain adoption, as adoption increases innovation must slow (as to accommodate the multiplicity of contexts within which the new technology has found purchase), and then it moves into obsolescence and eventually into antiquity.)

But there are some drawbacks to historicizing technologies in this way. First, earlier stages do nothing to predict what will come next. The model merely predicts that something will come next, but not what that something will be. Nor does Kurzweil’s model articulate how to identify false-pretenders as opposed to the actual technologies which will unseat the technology being modeled. Without these elements, I the value of Kurzweil’s model is limited.

His discussion about the future demise of the book rests, like almost all discussions of this nature, on the way he chooses to define “book.” Physicality. Not functionality. Nothing wrong with that, it just limits the power of his reflection to actually participate in the books future; instead choosing to mourn it. It deserves a good mourning.

Kurzweil’s model defines the book as a physical form, rather than as a functionally-defined object. Here, I’m setting up a binary of sorts between the physicality of books and their function. I suppose that is dangerous but I’ll have to see where it goes. Kurzweil focuses on the paper, ink, thread, binding, cover, etc. For him, these characteristics constitute books. But there’s a functionally-defined alternative available. The question really is: what do books do? What cultural role do they fulfill? Books did not pre-exist their function. Their function co-emerged with the technological possibilities which constitute them. Certain technologies allow books to be portable, durable, reproducible; the impulse for portability, durability, and reproducibility can only be reasonably conceptualized within relative proximity to existing or emerging technologies.

In these terms, papyrus were forms of books. And eBooks are forms of books. Books were never born, and they aren’t going to die. The only way to make that argument really is to argue that the functions that the core functions books performed, the the underlying cultural needs that books addressed, are going away. That’s a tough sell.

The major weakness of Kurzweil’s prognostication is that he conflates the cultural function of “the book” with the physical form of “the codex.” Another way of making this distinction is to say that “the book” is a technology, while “the codex” is a tool. To extend this train of thought, there’s a huge difference between the idea of the lever and the idea of leverage. Wait. Maybe that’s not quite it. Hmmm. That’s sort of it. But the lever is entirely a physical tool to perform physical tasks. And the book is a physical tool to perform physical tasks (portability, durability…), but it also performs cultural (think tenure; think status, think entertainment) as well as epistemological (think libraries of all different sorts) and political (Audacity of …). I think that the book’s paper-physicality is an important part of all of these types of functions, but only in determining the way this work gets done and how that work is experienced (not just by readers, but by authors, publishers, booksellers, and academic officials).

For instance, part of what made books the powerful technology they became is their portability, not their paper. The reason the printing press was such a historical bombshell (delayed time bomb, really) is because it fostered affordable textual reproduction and consumerism, not because typesetting can be beautiful. The reason the codex stabilized the form of the book was not because it fostered solid-feeling bindings and pretty covers, but because pages turned the book into something that was navigable, rather than linear.

[pullthis]When the book is conceptualized (for the sake of historicizing) as a technology, rather than a tool, it becomes much more difficult to argue that books are dead, or that they soon will be. They are tied too closely to too many various and divergent cultural contexts. Those contexts will have to change significantly in order for the-book-as-function to obsolesce.[/pullthis] As new technologies emerge, it is possible for new functions and practices to be imagined. As they are imagined, they in-turn push those technologies toward reinvention. And so on. The tools and technologies inform each other. They co-evolve.

In most cases it makes very little sense to have pages in digital documents. And it makes no sense to have page numbers. Look backward. Writing on walls. Not very portable. Clay was portable, but fostered the stylus. The stylus fostered ink. Ink fostered paper. Paper fostered folding. Folding fostered binding. Binding fostered page numbers. Page numbers fostered indexes. Indexes, by making text intra-navigable, fostered hypertext. And although it’s a parallel development, there’s a relationship (via a jump) to databases, which not only are intra-navigable, but open books to reconceptualizing in terms of their content-production and authorship and physical stability. Again, I’m over-simplifying and reducing an incredibly complex technology and the infinitely more complex context out of which (and along with which) it has evolved. But I’m merely trying to suggest (gesturally demonstrate) that the book won’t change just because technology is changing. The contexts have to change right along with the technology. So it’s the social that’s the governor in this model.

I think the real value of what Kurzweil does here is not so much in his impulse to argue that the dead-tree books are going away eventually, but in his demonstration that it no different than what happens to all technologies (tools). Nostalgia is fine. Just as long as you know it’s nostalgia and not actually the essence of the technology that you’re mourning. That gets into the danger of fetishizing the technologies. Paper’s various smells and textures. A book’s physical heft. The craftsmanship of a well-made book. The way a book ages over the course of one person’s (or many persons’) ownership. These are truly beautiful ways of understanding books. But they wouldn’t be so different if the books were empty, right? They don’t have much to do with the way books function culturally. Again, these sorts of elegies (yeah, I’m looking at you Sven Birkerts) are for the codex, not the book.

(image: “Mr R. Graves, Syracuse St, 2008” by Jake Shivery; Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Creative Commons license.)

This article has 1 Comment

  1. You’ve impressed me by treating this seriously. Therefore I’m going to be harsh and tell you what I think is needed to improve the argument. What is the role of this in your overall thesis? If it’s not central you can probably ignore most of what I say.

    The `death of the book’ is everybody’s favorite phrase, and I would sincerely appreciate ITS death, since it overloads so many meanings. (Are manuscripts dead? And what does that mean?)

    You are starting to take account of the complexity; that’s good. But a fuller argument would examine several definitions of books, look more closely at the materiality of the forms (papyprus, manuscripts, codices, modern books). A `book’ has so many meanings, and sample items changed quite rapidly, at least in the history of printing. One thing that *does* change is that genres are born and die based on the technology (triple-decker novels, or Japanese cell phone novels); some accounting for convenience, economics, and mass desire is probably needed.

    For thinking about definitions, one place that you may not have encountered is the “What is FRBR” pamphlet by Barbara Tillett She gives an analogy about the different uses of `book’ in everyday language about modern books, attributed to Patrick LeBoeuf:
    * something with pages to prop open a door (one particular book)
    * a thing we go to a bookstore to purchase (any one of a stack of equivalent items)
    * `who translated this book?’ (might be referring to several languages)
    * `who wrote this book?’ (may be very broad, at the story level)

    I think there’s a lot of depth in looking at the physical manifestation as compared to the uses; if you want to treat this credibly, the materiality of culture folks have a lot of interesting things to say. And on the elit side, HTLit and friends have pointed me to some interesting ideas, time and again.

    Anyway, I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about how this `death of books’ stuff fits into the rest of what you’re doing. And to seeing where you go with that!

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