People often say that an era is “bookended” by certain events — one ushering it in, the other closing it out. You could argue that the Cold War was bookended by Kruschev pounding his shoe on the table at the United Nations and the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could argue that the 1970s were bookended by the breakup of the Beatles and the appearance of HIV.
But what do you say when an era is bookended by actual books?
C.W. Anderson, a teacher at the College of Staten Island, writes in the Atlantic about putting together a syllabus for a course on “Print Culture.” In so doing, he notes:
Now that the electronic word has become embedded in our lives, we have a new perspective on what might have been special and specific about the last few hundred years of information dissemination.
That is, the Internet, e-readers, email, text messaging, and so forth may have effectively placed the terminal bookend on the print era, so that now we can examine what was special about the era defined by the print book and its offshoots.
Of course, print isn’t dead, and it won’t ever be gone, but its cultural centrality has diminished and continues to move to the periphery. However, Anderson’s syllabus shows us what the culture of print contributed to the advancement of our intellectual lives, as this selection shows:
- Weeks 3-4: From Orality to Literacy to Print
- Week 5: The Invention of the Author
- Weeks 7-8: Copyright
- Week 9: The Print Network — Bookstores, Libraries, Google
- Weeks 12-13: The End of Print?
The books Anderson has chosen for his class are fairly definitive, a property of books themselves — the best historical books can provide a firm foundation for future scholarship. The notion of widespread, shared knowledge is another debt we owe to the power of multiple copies with high fidelity to the original — a concept most familiar with the book, but used again and again for movies, records, and so on.
Anderson is wise in his assessment of how media and culture interact and extend and mix:
I want to convince my students that different media cultures don’t replace each other in any sort of straight line. Rather, a culture of orality joins up with, and mixes with a culture of printing, which itself mixes with (but is not vanquished by) digital culture, and so on.
As a teacher and essayist, Anderson is straddling the eras himself, using books as references but introducing blogs and online articles to challenge them. His Atlantic article is highly enriched by links that could not have existed in print. His approach is completely modern, normal in today’s communication environment, and displays exactly the kind of mixing he talks about.
Two other recent articles discuss why the book as a print artifact is so troubled, poised on a precipice. Mike Shatzkin observes and/or argues in a recent post that while the print book was essentially perfected hundreds of years ago, e-books are improving regularly. Reactionaries who claim they will never give up the printed book are neglecting this important aspect. As Shatzkin writes:
. . . the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are.
I recently observed this exact dynamic with visitors at our house. In a discussion of an obscure recipe, the “book lovers” scurried off to find something in the cookbooks. Their question as they left — “What’s your best book for recipes?” — elicited my answer of “My iPhone.” They scoffed, one saying, “We like books too much.” Sure enough, I had the answer before any of the book users. The tools available to the book users were the same ones as always — an index, page numbers, a table of contents, some section tabs (these were cookbooks). But the iPhone, like other e-readers, is facile now, and only getting better. The books I was competing against were the same as they were in the 1970s or 1990s.
A recent article in the New York Times observes that users of e-readers may also have a social advantage — the technology of the e-reader is intriguing, so people with iPads and Kindles get attention from strangers who want to touch, hold, gaze upon these new devices. Some users believe these devices are erasing the social stigma about reading alone in public. It’s an arguable point, as the article notes, but there definitely is something unique about a device (either the Kindle or the iPad) that can hold many types of content. With a book, it’s clear you’re reading one thing. With an e-reader, you have many more options at your fingertips, and that’s more socially interesting.
But while there may be some social benefit to e-books, one nagging concern about e-readers and the digital information experience in general was summed up nicely by author Jeanette Winterson:
If you start taking books off shelves then you are only going to find what you are looking for, which does not help those who do not know what they are looking for.
Browsing is still a problem with e-readers and online reading in general. Feeds, email alerts, and other techniques can help, but there’s nothing like wandering a bookstore, where you can experience the slow seduction, seeping inspiration, or random connection of real books. So while Shatzkin may be right that e-books and e-readers are improving, the macro book environment could suffer severely during the shift. Books could become files that are just plain hard to find. The marketing challenge of e-books aren’t well-addressed by the current devices.
The print era may be winding down, but many of the cultural transformations it wrought will be with us forever, shaping our journey. We are building from books, not destroying them. And as e-readers evolve, it’s interesting to ponder what the wireless information era will bring us. In a few decades or centuries, what will the syllabus of a class entitled “Connected Culture” look like?
Hat tip to Jill O’Neill for the syllabus link.