August 10, 2012

Dead Again
Two decades ago, the Book Review ran an essay, “The End of Books,” in which the novelist Robert Coover questioned whether print could survive the age of “video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks.” Was the book as “dead as God”? Coover’s answer was noncommittal, but his metaphor launched a thousand eulogies for the book as we knew it: a gathering of printed pages mass-produced on spec to be sold to anonymous strangers for financial gain. Back then, hyperlinks were the killer app. Coover’s title punned on the page-turning powers of the codex, which sweeps novel readers inexorably from Page 1 to The End. (He ignored how many codices, like the Yellow Pages, are designed for random access; millenniums before the advent of, the codex allowed the first Christians to cross-reference their Scriptures.) Now, succession planners have shifted their sights from the lowly hyperlink to the seemingly indomitable ereader. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center calculated that the percentage of Americans who own ereading devices doubled last December. Christmas, for centuries the publishing industry’s busiest season, became a gift to hardware manufacturers. And last year, Amazon 1

in a Life magazine profile.” which. Marshall McLuhan lumped books with other antiques: “clotheslines. seams in stockings. as the book killed architecture.) In hindsight. Thanks to broader literacy. Yet by 1927 a librarian could observe that “pessimistic defenders of the book . all that changes is the whodunit. seemingly more fantastical villains: 2 . . and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were throwing the scribes out of work.announced it was selling more e-books than print books — hardcover and paperback combined. . Science fiction writers would soon finger other. Gautier’s culprit was a very real historical phenomenon.” This was in 1835. when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust. four years earlier. And Gautier was only one upping Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Well before any of these digital technologies. daily papers began to emerge in 1835. books and jobs — all are obsolete. (The novel is set a quarter-century after Gutenberg’s first Bible. Television didn’t kill radio any more than radio ended reading.” Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph. Théophile Gautier’s novel “Mademoiselle de Maupin” had already declared that “the newspaper is killing the book. depicted an archdeacon worrying the book would kill the cathedral. and to prophesy the death of the book. following the invention of the metal press around 1800 and the introduction of steam printing shortly thereafter. we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another. are wont to contrast the active process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless.” By 1966. There’s just one catch: chronology.

these “reading machines” would “permit of the pursuit simultaneously of physical and of mental improvement. When the time traveler in H. but they were conversing in clear small voices. G.” Would these new technologies transmit text in more user-friendly forms or crowd out writing and reading altogether? On the eve of World War I.” full-color stereoscopic extravaganzas “with synchronized scent-organ accompaniment. intellectuals would be free to jog and with both hands free. he searches for hardcovers only to find rows of “peculiar double cylinders. very vividly colored. Aldous Huxley was inspired by the talkies three decades later to dream up “feelies” — “supersinging.” Besides curing eyestrain. and presto: the rolls project “a little picture.” The future. one 3 . Not only did they move. and have the sounds conveyed to the ear by wires.” VCR-like “Babble Machines.” One 19thcentury inventor gave the names of “whispering-machine” and “metal automatic book” to something that sounds like a cross between the audiobook and the Walkman.” Insert one into a square apparatus. and in this picture were figures that moved. synthetic-talking. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.” Where Wells invoked the optical devices used to magnify live theater.“fonografic” recordings. in all such cases. Wells’s 1899 “When the Sleeper Wakes” alights in the 22nd century.” Instead of hunching over desks. was recognizable by its bookshelf-bare walls. Users “would place the machine in the hat. “telephonic sermons.” microfilm-esque “reading-machine bobbins” and “spools which projected books. their wives could read while washing the dishes: “the problem of the higher education of woman would be triumphantly solved.

which they have included in a small duodecimo” — scaled somewhere between an iPod and an iPad.collection of “Library Jokes and Jottings” favored the first hypothesis. Frank Herbert’s doorstop-size “Dune” conjured a “Bible made for space travelers. it was only the sterilized milk. the sprawling bookstacks of the Royal Library would be condensed into a single volume. I used to get up at 9 o’clock in the morning and walk the length of the street to get a book from a Carnegie Library. ‘You youngsters don’t know what hardships are. They returned disconsolate. but in compacting it. but actually printed on filament paper. Not a filmbook. though there must have been almost 300 titles. (“All my purchases fitted into one pocket. 4 . the French visionary Louis-Sébastien Mercier had predicted that in the year 2440. History proved Mercier right: the future lay not in expanding information.’ said the elderly uncle. editors of the future would “extract the substance of thousands of volumes. and the young people slid up the moving stairway.”) And four years later. imagining a day in the life of a late-20thcentury household as follows: “There was a knock at the front door. the book is measured against a human body: thanks to a “magnifier and electrostatic charge system. the Polish fantasist Stanislaw Lem pictured bookshelves squeezed onto what we would now call an e-reader. Like a chemist distilling botanical essences. anticipating the parcel of books delivered each morning by the public library aeroplane service.” Like thumb drives and Palm Pilots. back in 1913. ‘when I was a lad.” the volume takes up less space than the joint of a finger. By 1961.’ ” A century and a half earlier. Mercier explained.

that printing itself was a lost art.A darker strain of futurology emphasized political decline over technological progress.’ His verb was carefully chosen. “A Clockwork Orange. in these visions. Even that most cinematic of novels. “Pillar of Fire. the place where books are read. not just the means to suppressing sedition. After a year in which 2. Maybe all ‘books’ today were in the form of fully delineated three-dimensional motion pictures. “May I help you?” “ ‘I’d like to “have” Edgar Allan Poe. what they never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear. Writers foresaw space travel.” A year before Orwell’s dystopia. acquired or received remains constant. I’m still waiting for the public library aeroplane. circulation desks still exist. some readers will need to walk a lot farther than the length of a street. “Fahrenheit 451” represents book burning as an end in itself. virtual reality and. quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover” — “a compromising possession. the pulp magazine “Planet Stories” ran Bradbury’s second most famous book-burning fable. He didn’t say ‘read. and their attendants still say.’ He was too afraid that books were passé.” begins and ends in the Public Biblio.” 5 .” However the terms change. Leah Price is a professor of English at Harvard and the author of “How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain.” Washed up in the 24th century. And “1984” opens with the purchase of a “thick. its time traveler heads straight for the library. the book’s demise.600 public library branches cut back their hours. Even in a society that torches horror fiction. time travel. endlessly.

And yet. breathing entity intimately connected with our own. or. was described as a living. The very nature of what it means to be human may be changing before our eyes. the book in many ways resembles the human body — and the mind. Ever-encroaching communications technologies are replacing intimate connections. their beeps echo our touch and they feel melded to our bodies. not unlike the friend who responds to our sympathetic probing. footnotes. and walk around with buds lodged in our ears. long before neural implants. In this cyborgian age. it “opens up” to us. When we “face” the book. touchpads attached to our fingers and (soon. inanimate things take on a life of their own. etc. rather. It contains secrets. endowed with properties that once upon a time distinguished people from things. We open a book. too. we have the vague sense we are interacting 6 . With its hard cover and soft. It. Our tendency to anthropomorphize the book’s features (we speak of its spine. hidden interior. headers. the iPad and the talking phone. We prefer the companionship of Siri — the iPhone 4S’s temperamental personal assistant — to real-life interaction. our mind engrossed in a borrowed consciousness. some say) neural chips embedded in our brains. our own spine curved over its.) emphasizes the connections between us. waiting to be uncovered. we’ve all heard the warnings: Humanity is under siege.August 10. there was the book. They pulse with vitality. 2012 It’s Alive! By GILLIAN SILVERMAN By now.

Perhaps this is why. from their size to their covers to the technology they use for page turning.” The 19th-century British scholar Henry Bradshaw classified his books. as a progressive exploration. and in his side. are “full of blood . was thought to be the material embodiment of Jesus Christ. the Kindle. absolute 7 .with something that. After all. Coleridge called the library “a living world. according to the literary scholar James Kearney — the Bible was reflexively endowed with human properties. Since Christ was understood to be the carnal manifestation of the Scriptures — the Word made flesh. . “living organisms. Nook and iPad cling to the form of the traditional book. “a living and breathing likeness of Him” in the words of Erasmus. said Bishop John Fisher in an early-16thcentury sermon.” in terms of genre and species. ev’ry line a vein.” These kinds of descriptions quickly spread to more secular books. and in his feete. the relationship between human reader and “animated” book has been forged over centuries. while not exactly human. replicating that familiar intimacy. and every book a man. Books. . “The leaves of this booke be the armes. The Bible. We don’t want to give up our experience of reading as an “opening” into another mind. for all their innovation. The capital letters dyed in red are “the great wounds of his body. said the 17th-century Welsh physician and metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. perhaps the first book to be characterized in these terms. the handes. registered in the turning of pages. legges and feete” of Christ. of thoughts that originated elsewhere. in his handes. is uncannily similar to ourselves.

The 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson claimed that to read was to “converse with the mighty dead.flesh and blood”. and added. For this reason. when more books were in circulation and “acquaintanceships” made through reading could substitute for a diminishing real-life community. The metaphor of the “book as friend. Books are “living friends.” said the British Rev. “and when you get acquainted with that man you get acquainted with the book. could help people establish contact with the deceased through the “medium” of the book. a way to access the innermost part of another human being.” and if it “breathed. reading. otherwise unreachable. “The more life embodied in the book. and Emily Dickinson asked whether her verse was “alive.” as the historian Ronald Zboray puts it.” And in the 19th century. it was suggested. it gained particular influence during the Industrial Revolution. “There is a man who writes. wrote. the influential American preacher Edwin Hubbell Chapin described books as “the embodiments and manifestations of departed minds — the living organs through which those who are dead yet speak to us.” Bronson Alcott. Frederick Denison Maurice in 1856. Louisa May Alcott’s father and a noted philosopher and educator. 8 . arose to ward off the loneliness of modern existence.” At a moment when spiritualism was surging in America.” Alcott and his contemporaries regarded the book as a container for consciousness. it was believed to be an especially effective way to communicate with the deceased. the more companionable.” A widespread perception held that the book was animated from within by its author.” While this was a longstanding assumption about reading.

Today we have online resources like Legacy Locker and SecureSafe that allow mourners to grieve for loved ones through their digital remains. But the book was the earliest technology connecting the living and the dead. is the way it enters our bodies and our souls. then.” Joseph Conrad wrote in 1905. Digital alarmists predict that soon we won’t be reading books at all. we are actually. The 19th-century theologian Noah Porter claimed that the books people read “enter into the structure of their being” and are “assimilated into the very substance of their living selves. a film. for they contain our very thought. our indignations. the book is singular in this regard. a way of tapping into the thoughts or experience of those who are no longer physically present. forcing us to reimagine ourselves in light of its transformative influence. “Of all the inanimate objects. of all men’s creations. some 50 years earlier. One could argue that all media. an installation or a book. our illusions. books are the nearest to us. Conrad was echoing Thoreau. It may be translated into every language. But books have been in there for a long time. — not be represented on canvas or in marble only. our ambitions. and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips. invite us to immerse ourselves in the unfamiliar contours of another’s mind. they will simply be implanted in our brains.” Nothing pleases us more than to peruse the shelves of 9 . whether a painting.” as Thoreau put it. And yet. suggesting that in reading. physically incorporating the dead into the living.” Part of the appeal of the book. “The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech. but be carved out of the breath of life itself. who. wrote that the book “is the work of art nearest to life itself.

rather than our printed books.” Perhaps these days our iPhones and MP3 players and even our Nooks. but they have also been. and continue to be. Sure you could say our media technologies. blurring the boundaries between human and nonhuman. and even. We are not so much entering a brave new universe as continuing an established tradition. But the book was there first. are parts of ourselves. between our bodies and the outside world. among the most cherished company we keep. starting with the book.” Porter writes.books read in our youth and to recognize aspects of our identities lodged there. Gillian Silverman is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver and the author of “Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in 19thCentury America. have tended to sequester us in cubicles. somehow. “So many have cleaved to their libraries with so fond an affection. as in a sense visible and tangible embodiments of their own being.” 10 . “and have learned to conceive of them as parts of themselves. less alive. the lifelike objects without which we feel lost and disoriented.