BOSTON, Mass. — The Book, long a staple of global life throughout humanity’s most enlightening and endearing eras, passed away peacefully as the last known bookstore on earth closed here. In its youth, the book emerged slowly as writing systems evolved away from scrolls and grew into binding systems, first in Japan and later in Europe. The book met its one true love, movable type, sometime during the second millennium and together the two had trillions of offspring who often left home with their own minds about how the world should be. Movable type preceded the Book in death, passing with the advent of cold type. Donations are suggested to the world’s 12 remaining public libraries.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
Consider the book. It has a cover, and certain information is always found in its opening pages. Every page has a margin. In all its object simplicity, as Craig Mod has pointed out, “we may be one of the last generations to think this” in responding to the idea of a book.
That’s because digital content is wreaking havoc on what we collectively think of as a book. Not only does its structure challenge our concepts of sequence and hierarchy, but once an e-book is published its digital life has only just begun. Individually highlighted passages can be shared. Notes from a shared community—whether your local book club or a country’s legislature—can live in the marginalia.
What is often overlooked in discussions of the “death” of the book so common now is that as an invention, the book moved authorship away from multiple, anonymous authors with tribal concerns and ultimately ended up fueling a culture of author worship.
When putting quill to papyrus (or tree bark perhaps), Homer was only extending the oral tradition of his predecessors with The Iliad and The Odyssey. Even Shakespeare, considered the greatest writer in the English language, borrowed his plots liberally from the historians of antiquity such as Plutarch and Holinshed. But the publishing industry saw the rise and fall of author superstars, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Sir Walter Scott to Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald and beyond, the publishing landscape is dotted with “superstar” authors—overwhelmingly men whose lives were spent at least partially in a room facing blank paper.
What will the future hold for authorship? We will make some predictions next week in our next installment.