Monday, August 13, 2012

200 years of 'the book is dead.'

Harvard English Professor, Leah Price, has a typically pointed essay in today's "Sunday Times Book Review." Like much of what appears in those oh-so-erudite pages, I almost always find something that wiggles its way into the world of advertising.

You can read Price's essay here and it's well-worth your effort: My father was absent for most of my life, busy at work, away on business or waist-deep in his fifth martini and his eleventh secretary. But he still, somehow, drilled into my head that if you want to learn to write, you ought to read the "Times'" book reviews. I never thanked him, though I should have, for that.

Price's essay is about the death of the book. We can extrapolate from dying books to other dying media: television, print, radio (of course) and more.

She starts her essay by citing an article that ran two decades ago in the Book Review by Robert Coover called "The End of Books." Even in those more paper-friendly, pre-e-book times, 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?"

Price jumps off from Coover and gives us a little "the book is dead" history.

In 1835, with the rise of newspapers Théophile Gautier’s had declared that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.”

She cites similar predictions from H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Marshall McLuhan and others. Books would be replaced by all manner of science fiction.

Price says, "Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit."

Here's Price's money phrase, at least as far as I'm concerned: "In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another. Television didn’t kill radio any more than radio ended reading. Yet by 1927 a librarian could observe that “pessimistic defenders of the book . . . are wont to contrast the active process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophesy the death of the book.” By 1966, in a Life magazine profile, Marshall McLuhan lumped books with other antiques: “clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs — all are obsolete.”

1 comment:

Tore Claesson said...

Whether a book is printed on paper or displayed on a kindle it's still a book. I've tried to find reliable data on readership before and now. Can't seem to find any. The only thing I think I might have found that seems somewhat certain is that in countries where people can afford books readership is still fairly high. As far as my children go they are keen book readers. Even after they got nooks they mostly prefer the paper version. They also love magazines. And their computers of course. TV viewing on the big can is getting less attention however. Not that I would complain about that. It's just that they seem pretty used to watch movies and youtube and what not on their smaller screens. They only turn to the big screen TV when watching European soccer. Anyway, as far as books go it's hard to imagine them ever dying. Many of us humans simply like to read. Whether cheap formulaic romance books, thrillers, or something heavier.