Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Written Word

Lately I've had several online conversations about books. I'm a writer; I have friends who are in the writing/editing/publishing world. Some of them seem concerned with the future of the book, in its printed form. So I thought I'd do a post on the written word -- where it's been, where it's going.

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.
We still find clay tablets from thousands of years ago, in the desert sands of the Middle East. They've lasted through the harshest elements! Just try that with a book!
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.
Then writers moved on to vellum, calf skin. They wrote on leather, basically. Very sturdy stuff, more supple than clay, more sturdy than papyrus scrolls.
At this point I'll just jump ahead to books with paper. Mr. Gutenberg helped us here quite a bit. He took us from the world of manuscript writing (where each book had to be hand-written individually) to printing, the ability to make multiple copies. Oh MY! What a revolution in the written word! I wonder if anyone balked at that revolution? "The scribes will be put out of work! Think of the errors, multiplied a hundredfold with the printing process! We will lose the beauty of the individual handwriting! We'll lose the joy of knowing which man wrote which book!" And on and on. The masses disagreed, and ate up this revolution with an appetite.
Gutenberg's revolution meant more books to more people, eventually. Interestingly enough, until more people could read, the oral tradition continued. One person read the text aloud, and others listened. The idea of each person having his own book was still rather new. Please note that, even with the advent of the printing press, the spoken word did not diminish. Nor, really, did the idea of manuscript -- writing by hand. Much communication even today continues to be done by hand, individually. One could truly say that with the introduction of electronic means, we have more people today writing their individual thoughts, using their own fingers, and sending these thoughts to their own selected reader(s), than ever before in the history of man. They may not use a pen (or a quill, or a stylus), but the concept is the same.

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.

I think this machine was a huge step forward as well. It's an offset printer. In the 1980s, I worked in the office at a large church. They used to send their bulletins and all their "fancy" printing to a printing company downtown. A couple of days later, the work would return in time for Sunday, and the church paid a hefty price for it. But we bought an offset printer. One secretary was in charge of maintaining this beast. Oh, the cleaning of rollers, and the refilling of powdered ink! It could take your fingers off, as it grabbed that paper. But it did beautiful work on its best days. Just as I was leaving that job, they replaced this small offset machine with a much larger one, that seemed to take up a whole room. Even churches were beginning to do all their printing themselves. The machines still used ink, like Gutenberg. We'd made them fast, and run by electricity instead of muscle, but the idea remained. We had pushed technology to its limit with ink. It was time for a new revolution, so that more people could have access to more information, more quickly.

Welcome, digital media. This is a Kindle Fire, a smooth, lovely e-reader. It's about the size of a book page. If you gently drag your finger across it, the page "turns," and it even makes that soft swooshing sound, of a page turning. You can put a bookmark in, to keep your place. It can slip in your purse or briefcase. It's rather expensive, but once you buy it, it holds thousands of books, many of which are free online. It's a library, in your pocket. Now, there's an idea!
I have friends who frankly do not like this last jump. They're comfortable with the history of the written word, up until now. They particularly do not like electronic formatting for real books -- the opening of pages and reading a story for enjoyment or illumination. They say it is bad for children -- too much screen time. They say it is good only for inconsequential information like notes, casual FB conversations, or letters, but a truly horrible idea for more serious tomes like novels or textbooks. They say it is bad for the poor, who cannot afford the technology, and will be left behind. And they say we will lose our history, the beauty of a printed book, the smell and feel and emotional quality of the book in your hand. (I think this is the argument that drives them the most.) I imagine there are other arguments.

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!

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