09 October 2009

Why the History of the Book Matters

One of our readers posed an interesting question in an e-mail to the two of us today, which in true grad student fashion I took as a cue to pen a huge missive that tried to cover the whole history of the book in the Western world in one go.

I'm posting my response here because whenever I tell people I'm studying book history, they usually have no idea what that means, but after I talk about it a little, they perk up, usually because they realize how pertinent the questions book historians ask are to the present day.

The e-mail in question, in describing the book as a technology (which one of the many approaches book historians take), first asked what the Romans meant when they said "liber" (the root of "library"), then raised the question of what the internet will do to books and periodicals in their printed forms. Here was my shamefully long response:

The book (codex) as we know it dates from Roman times. Somewhat apocryphally, its invention is attributed to Julius Caesar, who used little booklets of parchment (papyrus doesn't fold easily) for sending messages--in booklet form, you could conserve parchment by writing on both sides, and the message was easier to conceal and carry. The codex really caught on among Christians--this was the first time you had readers of a low-enough class that they had to worry about conserving parchment. Plus, the codex scriptures were easier to smuggle, and they made cross-reference easier.

The printing press, of course, caused scribes to freak out, but it also caused great consternation among the elite readers of the late manuscript age, who worried about the possible political effects of widespread, relatively cheap print. They also worried that print would allow too many authors and too many books to be preserved--an early fear of information overload.

Then, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the boom in literacy and letter writing, the piecemeal introduction of cheap postal service throughout Europe, the spread of periodicals across class lines, the end of perpetual copyright, and the increased commercialization and industrialization of the publishing industry, sparked an information revolution with some striking similarities to what we're seeing now. By the late 19th century, in England at least, nearly everyone was literate, nearly everyone kept up correspondence with people throughout the country and even throughout the empire, there were enough publication venues available that a large number of amateurs could participate in the public debate, and there was simply so much text out there that no one had near enough time to read everything they wanted to read.

During this time, the London publishing companies fought long and hard to stave off the collapse of their old business model (selling extremely expensive, well-made books, in small print runs, to private and public libraries), and only gave in when a) they realized people who couldn't afford books were simply borrowing them from libraries and friends and copying their favorite passages out longhand, and b) they couldn't compete with the cheap editions pouring in from Ireland and Scotland, or with the cheap serials and periodicals being published throughout the Isles. Quite a few old-model London publishers failed--the ones that still survive from that time (Routledge, Macmillan) were the ones who adapted and moved downmarket with a publishing model still in use today: bring out an expensive edition (like hardback) for the libraries and the early-adopters, then a cheaper edition (like paperback) for the majority of readers. The most successful writers were the ones who adapted to the new technology of the periodicals--journalists, and fiction writers who would syndicate their novels. The most successful literary men of all--the new professional agents--were the ones who developed expertise in the complicated new markets created by these new technologies.

I think this is partly why I'm interested in studying the "long 19th century" (1780-1910ish): it's a period of extremely rapid and near-total transformation in how (and which) people read and write, not unlike our own. Parallels abound: e-mail vs. cheap postal service; web magazines, blogs, vs. old periodicals; the three-volume novel vs. the DVD (both of which circulate mainly through rental, and both of which spawned cheap, pirated versions). In the 19th century, some formats and some business models died as a result of the new technology--the three-volume novel, the patronage system of author support, the annual and quarterly volumes of reviews--while some new formats and business models arose in their places--the inexpensive one-volume novel, professional commercial authorship, weeklies and dailies.

Some won, some lost, but on the whole I think we came out ahead: more readers representing a wider slice of society, more reading material, more democratic participation in the public sphere. I think the same is happening now. The new technologies are better for some uses: for example, I don't think anyone needs to write legibly anymore, as long as they can read their own handwriting--we type or speak most communication with others today. Most periodicals don't lose much, and in fact gain a lot, in digital format. I'd say the same for reference materials.

But I still think books are the best tool available for research or cross-reference: the computer screen is basically a scroll, and anyone who has tried to flip through different parts of a PDF (curse you, end notes!) knows what a disaster that can be. Books also work off the grid (a lot of us are too clumsy to take a Kindle anywhere near a bathtub), and the whole display element of owning books is lost in digital formats. Finally, as a firm believer in writing in books, I don't plan on giving the codex up anytime soon. But the newspaper? Online. News television? Online. Reference sources, databases, and archival information? Online. But Jane Austen? Dan Brown? Carla Kelly? The Bible? Sure, digital forms will peel some of the buyers away, but I have a feeling the codex forms will stick around.

Of course, one of the great things about studying book history (as opposed to old-school English lit) is that the people you talk to often have opinions on what you study, because these questions actually touch every literate person's life everyday. So: what do you think? Will the internet kill the book? Wound it? Destroy civilization as we know it?

1 comment:

  1. Hey
    I just read your post and wanted to leave a - shorter - comment on your questions ;-)
    In my opinion the internet will not kill the good old book!! Though I go to the library quite often, as a student, I do not have the place nor the money to buy everything I want to read (if I would own every book I read, I could probably open up a library myself ;-) ), there are not so many things that feel better than a new book, a cup of tea and a lit fire or some candles!!
    This is my firm believe, but still only my opinion.
    Greets Mari