As you know, we didn't always have the written word. We had the spoken word: the oral tradition. Yes, there was a time when everyone thought the best way to pass on information was by using simply (and only) the human memory, the human voice. They told stories. Eventually, those stories -- that information -- survived the revolutionary transition to the written word. We still have ancient stories. Because man doesn't fundamentally change, even his very old stories remain interesting to us. We read Gilgamesh or Homer and their feelings and fears resonate with us still.
But someone, probably some government official, decided words need to be regulated a bit. They wrote them on clay tablets, in an attempt to give them permanence. I think it worked.
And then, of course, there's papyrus. Were they looking for something more supple? More compact? Something they didn't have to bake? They could certainly store more information, in less space.
This pic, by the way, came from a really interesting web page here, about the history of the written word. I recommend it as good reading.
Anybody remember this? The Mimeograph Machine? This was the wonder of the educational world, when I was in grade school. I still remember those damp test papers that the teacher would have just retrieved from the school office, and we students would blow lightly on them, to help them dry. I loved the smell of the ink (or whatever it was) -- that faded blue on the paper.
But I'd say that, when we have one of our predictable revolutions in the written word, the old forms are not lost. We've seen this again and again. Children will have screen time; wouldn't it be better for them to have access to excellent stories and educational material, imaginatively rendered, than Halo, Tetras, or some first-person shooter game? Many teens have shifted seamlessly from phone talking to texting -- simply moving from oral communication to written. Why should this be disturbing? Rather than fighting the fact that children and teens will love their screens as we loved our pages, we'd be better off making their screens better for them -- easier on the eyes, safer to use, functional and affordable.
And who's to say which documents should be put in print form, and which in digital? Who can predict which texts will be valuable 100 years from now? Many textbooks and novels will never survive a decade, and some letters and even facebook threads, which seem valueless today, may be of incredible significance to later generations. We are silly to think we can decide these matters, now.
It's true that computers are expensive. Only a certain cut of the world's population can pay for a Kindle Reader. But one can also read digital texts on regular desktop or laptop computers. And although it's always sad when large swaths of 3rd-world nations can't afford the latest technology for reading, this was certainly just as true with books. Who, in the 14th century, could afford to own a book? Very few. Who, in the 20th century, could afford to use a local library and check out ten books each week? Only those who lived in civilized countries, and usually only then in cities. I had access to thousands of books as a teen, but my counterparts in Sudan or Nicaragua did not. Was that a reason to restrict book access to me in the U.S.? No. The hope is eventually to give the best access to all, but it is accomplished in steps.
Will we lose our history? I don't think so. There will always be a demand for a book to hold in the hand, and where there's a demand, there will be a supply. I don't think printed books will disappear. What I do think is this: the massive structure of businesses that have depended on the need for printed books, will disappear. Just like my church, dependent as it was on the downtown printing company, our society will pull away from dependency on publishing houses, editors, agents, distributors and sellers. We're cutting out a host of middle-men in one fell swoop. The big publishers have held readers captive long enough. Writers are no longer beholden to the publishing companies, thankfully. And if way too much poorly-written drivel is churned out online, it will be the readers, and not their publishing-house gatekeepers, who will decide which books become popular, and which do not. Yay! I'm happy for that day. Digital reading has put more text into the hands of more people than ever before. That has been the goal of the written word, from day one.
What about permanency? Won't digital format destroy the feeling of solidity that we have, holding a book in our hands? Aren't books at great risk of being lost, when their content is held by bits and bytes on a teeny chip somewhere? Eek!!!
Well, no. Actually, many old, out-of-print books, lost to us previously, are now available in digital format, thanks to people who really care about preservation. It's past time for the chains of old copyrights to be broken. I'm not talking about the ownership rights of current writers. Most books before 1900 are in public domain; they should be free reading to everyone. But publishing house still charge big prices for print copies of these books, which is fine, since they're paying for paper, ink and labor. But what if paper, ink, and labor weren't needed? Digital format makes public domain books accessible to everyone with a computer. My hope is that this will drive down the prices for these print books also, making them accessible even to the very poor, in print form.
Well, I've got to dash to a dental appointment for Julia. I hope this is food for thought, for those who made it to the end of this rant! In whatever form -- happy reading!