In The Body of the Book,* Jan-Dirk Müller recounts how, in the 15th century, a man in Paris named Guillaume Fichet was worried. He was starting to see the effects of the invention of moveable type, created 30 years earlier, and he didn’t like them. We’re not talking the blogging software, but the actual metal type that was being used to print books in large quantities. In 1470 he wrote that if “everything that can be thought can immediately be written and preserved for posterity [by this new technology] the memory capacity of the cultural system will be overstressed and oblivion will be the result.”
In Defining the Initial Shift,* Elizabeth Eisenstein tells us about a Swiss naturalist named Conrad Gesner who, in 1545 (after almost a century of printed books) bemoans the disappearance of hand-lettered manuscripts. He demands that the Swiss government set up institutions to protect them, as they had “unique authority” and the “aura of truth” that printed books lacked. What Gutenberg called artificialiter scribere (artificial writing) got a very bad reputation with him as the cause of the “death of quality” literature and design.
In 2009, Paul Constant warns of the “the slow, moronic death of books as we know them,” stating that “…if nobody can afford to publish John Grisham, that doesn’t mean that Grisham’s readers are suddenly going to pick up a quality literary novel by, say, Dave Eggers or Stephen Elliott. It just means they’re not going to read anymore. And when the number of people reading decreases at the top of the mass-reading market—the Twilight and Stephen King readers—there will be fewer people filtering down to the serious literary experience, and the idea of reading printed books will be a tiny boutique experience, not unlike collecting vinyl.”
In 2011, a designer named Joel Friedlander writes of “The Death of Book Design”: “…book design finally succumbed to a far deadlier virus that swept the world, infecting everything: digitization. Objects—formerly a part of the real world—slowly decayed into a series of ‘1’s and 0’s’ (whatever they are). Book Design was no different from Music, Art, or even Typing.”
It seems that nothing can stop the creativity and adaptability of human beings in creating great stories and rendering them in wonderful new ways, no matter how many warnings of Terrible Things about to Happen to the Book. Whew, glad we’ve dealt with that. Now, on to more interesting questions…
*These and many other great essays are collected in The History of the Book Reader, edited by David Finkelstein.