It is not an uncommon experience these days for one to exclaim “seriously?” at something that seems too absurd to even contemplate, and that is exactly what I found myself thinking while reading Al Martinich and Tom Palaima’s nostalgic defence of the printed book ( “Prints charming” , Opinion, 8 February). Curiously, nostalgia is soon dismissed as the cause of the authors’ “uneasiness”, and yet it is exactly what blinds them to the obvious. Perhaps, I mused, the two scholars, of philosophy and Classics respectively, have written the piece in jest, surely they cannot hijack Marshall McLuhan’s metaphor of the “Gutenberg galaxy” to defend the “endangered book” without realising the irony inherent in such a reference? And how could a professor of Classics forget Socrates’ lament that writing diminished the mind, distracted us with an excess of information and weakened the power of memory?
Perhaps it is worth reminding them that when Gutenberg developed moveable type, the fear was that the authority and significance of the God-ordained and supported Scriptorium would be lost. During the Industrial Revolution, when books became widely available, the list of fears included distraction, loss of an ability to focus productively, licentiousness, violence and diminished appreciation for great literature or complex philosophy. It is uncanny how the same list returns, almost unaltered to the letter, in our own Information Age. Schools and universities have the enormous responsibility of figuring out the best way to shape our use of digital tools. We owe it to this generation of young people to help them invent cultural norms that do for the internet age what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for the print culture information age. McLuhan himself advocated radical changes in education, because he believed that “you must be literate in umpteen media to be really ‘literate’ nowadays”, and he went on to suggest that education should abandon its commitment to print – to cultivate the “total sensorium”.
In my 2012 article “The many futures of the book”, I conclude that the nostalgically framed questions surrounding the “endangered” printed book are a symptom of deep-felt anxieties regarding complex issues: the evolution of human communication, the implications of technological controls on our ability to manage intellectual discourse, the emergence of new business models in the publishing industry, the subversion of established power relationships among publishers, readers and authors and, finally, the disruption of all cultural practices, consumer expectations and legal frameworks related to the codex tradition.
Martinich and Palaima can rest assured that the book has many futures ahead, at least as many as the various hybrid forms that it is going to evolve into.