The Future of Books–Past and Present
Lately it seems like everywhere we look, we find stories about the decline of print media and a future consisting of digital scans, ubiquitous screens and thoughts expressed in 140 characters or less. A few months ago, The Onion (which will shortly cease all print publication) published an article on “Print Dead At 1,808:”
Print, which had for nearly two millennia worked tirelessly to spread knowledge around the globe in the form of books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and numerous other textual materials, reportedly succumbed to its long battle with ill health, leaving behind legions of readers who had for years benefited from the dissemination of ideas made possible by the advent of printed materials.
In the 2012 independent film, “Robot and Frank,” which chronicles the story of an aging cat burglar and his robot caretaker, there is a fascinating subplot addressing questions and issues surrounding the future role of printed books and public libraries. Towards the beginning of the film a rabble of NYC yuppies invades a quaint upstate village and starts working to “reimagine the library,” transforming it into a multisensory community space offering the “library experience”–without books. The librarian, played by Susan Sarandon, takes these changes in stride, while a curmudgeonly Frank Langella with a rapidly fading memory doesn’t react as well. Perhaps he is insulted by the tech-savvy young consultant’s condescending remarks:
- “So you must remember the days when this library was the only way to learn about the world?”
- “Maybe we can create something in honor of the Dewy Decimal System.”
- “I’d love to talk to you some more about your history with printed information. You’re a connection to the past, buddy” [walks out of the library with eyes glued to tablet].
Statements like these could make us think we are experiencing a unique chapter in human history. Books and libraries seem to be on the way out, and many are mourning their passing. All this worry, however, can cause us to overlook other moments in the past where the fate of the printed book appeared to be very much in flux. In the 1894 publication of The End of Books by Octave Uzanne with illustrations by Albert Robida, the bibliophilic authors predicted the complete eradication of books after a hostile takeover by recorded sound.
Instead of fine leather bindings containing pages of text, new works of literature would be wax cylinders wrapped in fine decorative casings. Authors would no longer be noted for their style or writing, but for their abilities in narration and speaking. The authors of The End of Books even foresaw the future existence of pocket phono-opera-graphs [ipods], “for use during excursions among Alpine mountains or in the canons of the Colorado.” A complete online translated version of The End of Books can be viewed here on the internet archive.
Inspired by these influences, the theme for next semester’s Watts program is titled “The Future of Books–Past and Present.” Through our usual series of lectures, seminars, workshops and field trips, we will focus on various pivotal moments throughout history where the nature of books and reading has changed drastically due to new technologies or social movements. Some of the themes to be addressed will include:
- the intersection of the history of technology and the history of the book
- moments of drastic change in the nature of readership and interaction with print
- the role of books and printing in knowledge production and organization of information
- contemporary and future issues of e-publishing, decline of bookstores, copyright, open-access and piracy
- Are books dead?
A full schedule of events will be posted to the blog before the start of the spring semester. Meanwhile, we hope this clip gets you excited about the types of topics we will discuss: