Illustration by Albert Robida, for “The End of the Books,” by Octave Uzanne, published in Scribner’s Magazine, vol. 16, no 2, August 1894. Public domain.
Increasingly, people of the book are also people of the cloud. At the Codex Hackathon, a convention whose participants spend a frenetic weekend designing electronic reading tools, I watch developers line up onstage to pitch book-related projects to potential collaborators and funders. “Uber for books”: a same-day service that would deliver library volumes to your door. “Fitbit for books”: an app that blocks incoming calls and buzzes your phone with reminders to get back to a book. That literary pedometer meets its real-world counterpart in LitCity: “Imagine walking down a city street and feeling that familiar buzz of a push notification. But instead of it being a notification on Twitter or a restaurant recommendation, it’s a beautiful passage from a work of literature with a tie to that place.” I thought back to the nineteenth-century guidebooks that inserted a snippet of Shelley next to their map of the Alps; the book has always been about bringing worlds together.
Some projects return to the decades-old premise of electronic enhancements or “enrichments,” which went during the aughts under the ungainly name of “vooks.” SubText overlays digitized works of literature with annotations and images; BookPlaylist synchronizes a text with background music. Then again, perhaps print books aren’t the ones whose poverty needs to be remedied: other projects feel like pale electronic imitations of features that print books have long taken for granted. Rebook generates digital “association copies” (remember Obama swearing in on Lincoln’s Bible) by allowing readers to give away ebooks that they’ve underlined or annotated. Cover Design History catalogs the dust jackets too often lost when books are digitized or even just discarded by libraries, while Gavel uses snapshots of book covers to generate and summarize reviews (as in, “you can’t judge a book by … ”).
One of the problems being solved is death. Would a diagnosis of terminal cancer be softened by an app that helps you divvy up your books among your heirs? The book may not be dying, but its users seem sensitive to their own mortality. Fahrenheit 451 ends with characters rescuing books from a biblioclastic regime by choosing a book to “become.” You can take a love of reading to mean preserving a threatened past; you can also understand it as a spur to imagining what new forms books might take in the future.
In his 1992 magazine article “The End of Books,” which launched a thousand eulogies for the book as we knew it, Robert Coover took “book” to mean a gathering of printed pages mass-produced on spec to be sold to anonymous strangers in exchange for hard cash. His assumption, we can see now, would have surprised a Victorian circulating-library patron or an eighteenth-century subscriber to a hand-circulated news sheet. But Coover’s understanding of what a book is and what a book does would have been equally hard-pressed to include the Free Press’s wares.
In 1992, 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. (The codex replaced the scroll, millennia before Bible.com, precisely because it allowed early Christians to flip hyperactively through their scriptures.) Yet chronology makes it hard to believe that the hyperlink was killing the book, because that metaphor predates the web. In 1835, Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin declared that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.” Gautier was one-upping Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which depicted an archdeacon worrying that the book would kill the cathedral and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were killing scribes’ trade. This nineteenth-century historical novel is set a quarter century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust.
In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another: the rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading. Yet in 1913, a journalist interviewing Thomas Edison on the future of motion pictures recounted the inventor declaring confidently that “books … will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” By 1927 a librarian could observe that “pessimistic defenders of the book … are wont to contrast the actual process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophecy the death of the book.” And in 1966, Marshall McLuhan stuck books into a list of outdated antiques: “clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs—all are obsolete.”
Throughout the nineteenth century and again in the twentieth, every generation rewrote the book’s epitaph. All that changes is whodunnit. Gautier’s culprit was a very real historical phenomenon: the daily papers emerging in 1835 thanks to broader literacy, the metal press invented around 1800, and steam printing shortly thereafter. Later sci-fi writers imagined a succession of replacements: “fonografic” recordings (Library Journal, 1883), “telephonic sermons” (Edward Bellamy, 1887), VCR-like “Babble Machines” (H. G. Wells, 1899), microfilm-esque “reading-machine bobbins” (Aldous Huxley, 1932), and “spools which projected books” (Ray Bradbury, 1948). In 1885, the French librarian R. Balmer gave the names of “whispering-machine” and “metal automatic book” to something that sounds uncannily like an audiobook. Its user “would place the machine in the hat, and have the sounds conveyed to the ear by wires.” Besides curing eyestrain, these “reading machines” would “permit of the pursuit simultaneously of physical and of mental improvement.” Translation: instead of hunching over desks, intellectuals would be free to jog. And with both hands free, their wives could read while dishwashing: “The problem of the higher education of woman would be triumphantly solved.”
The more spandex jumpsuits, the fewer leather-bound volumes: the future was recognizable by its bookshelf-bare walls. The Enlightenment visionary Louis-Sébastien Mercier predicted that in the year 2440, the sprawling book stacks of the Royal Library would have been condensed into a single volume. Like a chemist distilling botanical essences, Mercier explained, the editors of the future would “extract the substance of thousands of volumes, which they have included in a small duodecimo”—scaled somewhere between an iPod and an iPad.
History proved Mercier right in one sense: the future lay not with expanding information, but compacting it. By 1961, the Polish fantasist Stanislaw Lem pictured bookshelves squeezed onto what we would now call an e-reader, supplemented by what we would now call print on demand.
All my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles … They can be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it … As a rule, a bookstore had only single “copies” of books, and when someone needed a particular book, the contents of the work was recorded in a crystal. The originals—Crystomatrices—were not to be seen; they were kept behind pale blue enamel steel plates. So a book was printed, as it were, every time someone needed it.
Four years later, Frank Herbert’s doorstop-size Dune conjured up a “Bible made for space travelers. Not a filmbook, but actually printed on filament paper.” Herbert measured the book, like thumb drives and PalmPilots, against a human body: thanks to a “magnifier and electrostatic charge system,” the unabridged volume would take up less space than the joint of your finger.
The term “ebook” endorses such optimism. Whatever replaces the codex, it implies, will be functionally equivalent: the same textual content in a new and improved (usually shrunken) package. A darker strain of futurology, in contrast, emphasizes political decline over technological progress. Fahrenheit 451 represents book burning as an end in itself, not just a means to suppressing sedition whose medium happens to be print. A few years earlier, 1984 opened with the purchase of a “thick, quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover.” A blank notebook speaks louder than a printed volume: “Even with nothing written in it, it was a compromising possession.” The final piece of evidence of thoughtcrime that sends Winston Smith to Room 101? A paperweight found in his possession. Here, as in Amtrak’s Quiet Car, the idea of the book remains more powerful than any ideas that it contains.
Fiction has been better at predicting the invention of cylinder books and filament books, or the survival of marbled pages and glass paperweights, than at imaging what as-yet-unborn institutions might in the future carve out room to read. Even the writers whose imaginations run riot in picturing new machines for viewing and storing text either give no space to libraries, bookstores, and postal systems, or imagine those intermediaries as mirror images of their own era. On the eve of World War I, one humorist imagined a day in the life of a late-twentieth-century household:
There was a knock at the front door, and the young people slid up the moving stairway, anticipating the parcel of books delivered each morning by the public library aeroplane service. They returned disconsolate; it was only the sterilized milk. “You youngsters don’t know what hardships are,” said the elderly uncle; “when I was a lad, back in 1913, I used to get up at nine o’clock in the morning and walk the length of the street to get a book from a Carnegie Library.”
The librarian fed up with “the death of the book” in 1927 predicts more darkly that in the future “we shall press a button, or turn a handle, and receive the books selected by ourselves—or much more probably by some paternal committee.” In the decade when Orwell’s dystopia is set, the pulp magazine Planet Stories ran Ray Bradbury’s second most famous book-burning fable, “Pillar of Fire.” Washed up in the twenty-fourth century, its time traveler heads straight for the library. For even in a society that torches horror fiction, circulation desks still exist, and their attendants still ask, “May I help you?”
“I’d like to ‘have’ Edgar Allan Poe.” His verb was carefully chosen. He didn’t say “read.” He was too afraid that books were passé, that printing itself was a lost art. Maybe all “books” today were in the form of fully delineated three-dimensional motion pictures.
However the terms change, fiction makes the place where books are read, had, or received a comforting constant.
Not so in real life. If you believe that infrastructures have consistently done more to shape reading than have this or that device, then the question becomes not whether we read in print or online or in some as-yet-unimagined medium but rather in the interactions through which we get our hands on books—and even more fundamentally, the interactions that awaken a desire for them. Writers who foresaw space travel, time travel, and virtual reality still failed to imagine that libraries that provide more digital and print service than ever before might nonetheless find their staffs fired and replaced by volunteers; their survival dependent on self-help books prescribed by doctors; their Carnegie-era premises sold off to for-profit companies that turn their vaulted reading rooms into private gyms where books are ingested, if at all, through earphones on the treadmill. Whatever its medium, I’m confident that the experience of immersion in a world made of words will survive if and only if readers continue to carve out places and times to have words with one another. As for the marbled notebooks, they can take their chances.
Leah Price is distinguished professor of English at Rutgers University, where she founded the Initiative for the Book. This piece is excerpted from her latest book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books: The History and Future of Reading, which was published last month by Basic Books.
Copyright © 2019 by Leah Price.
Last / Next Article