The Death of the Book by Ben Ehrenreich

Pity the book. It’s dead again.

April 18th, 2011 reset - +

Photograph "Dirty Book" © Tom Benedek 

PITY THE BOOK. IT'S DEAD AGAIN. Last I checked, Googling "death of the book" produced 11.8 million matches. The day before it was 11.6 milion. It's getting unseemly. Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality. Their pages grow brittle. Their ink fades. Their spines collapse. They are so pitiful, they might as well be human.

The emphasis shifts with each telling, but every writer, editor, publisher, bookseller, and half-attentive reader knows the fundamental story. After centuries of steady climbing, book sales leveled off towards the end of the 1900s. Basic literacy began to plummet. As if television and Reaganomics were not danger enough, some egghead lunatics went and built a web — a web! — out of nothing but electrons. It proved a sneaky and seductive monster. Straight to our offices and living rooms, the web delivered chicken recipes, weather forecasts, pornography, the cutest kitten videos the world had ever seen. But while we were distracted by these glittering gifts, the internet conspired to snare our friend the book, to smother it.

The alarm at first built gradually. In 1999, Robert Darnton, writing in The New York Review of Books, consoled his readers that, all the grim prophecies notwithstanding, "the electronic age did not drive the printed word into extinction."  The book seemed safe enough for a few years, in more danger from the avarice of the carbon-based conglomerates that ate up all the publishers, than from anything in silicon. Safe until the fall of 2007, when lady Amazon released her hounds. Within a month of the Kindle's debut, the New Yorker was writing of the "Twilight of the Books." (Cue soundtrack: all minor keys, moody cello.) The London Times worried that "the slow death of the book may be with us."

Last summer Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books than the paper kind. The time to fret had passed. It was Kindle vs. kindling. MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte — whose name is frequently preceded by the word "futurist" — declared that the demise of the paper book should be written in the present tense. "It's happening," Negroponte said, and gave the pulpy artifacts just five years to utterly expire.

None of this is new of course. Nor is it new to point out that people have been diagnosing — and celebrating — the book's imminent demise for generations. It is possible to regard much of Western avant garde poetry and prose as an extended argument with the bound pages from which literature would prefer to break free. In a 1913 manifesto, Filippo Marinetti (a futurist of the OG sort) called for "a typographic revolution directed against the idiotic and nauseating concepts of the outdated and conventional book." His insurrectionary program may now seem quaint — "on the same page we will use three or four colors of ink, or even twenty typefaces if necessary" — but Marinetti was not alone in rebelling against the uniformity imposed on language by the standard typeset page. Similar urges ran through most of the high modernists, certainly through Stein, Joyce, and Pound, and through the iconoclastic American poet and journalist Robert Carlton Brown (better known as Bob), who, in the late 1920s, envisioned a reading machine designed to liberate words from the static confines of the page. Brown imagined something like a desk-sized microfiche reader capable of displaying spooled celluloid texts called "readies." "Writing has been bottled up in books since the start," he wrote. "It is time to pull out the stopper."

Not everyone was enthused. F. Scott Fitzgerald bemoaned the deadly consequences of the development of sound cinema — not so much on literature as on his earning capacity as an author. "There was a rankling indignity," he wrote in 1936, "in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, grosser power." But talkies did not kill the book, just as still photography and radio had not and television would not. Far from it: the mass consumption in the US of what we might call serious literature — by which I don't mean the somber stuff so much as the challenging and formally inventive — probably peaked in the late 1960s or early '70s.

Most talk of the death of the book in that era was enthusiastically in favor. In 1962, Marshall McLuhan had published an almost spookily prescient book titled The Gutenberg Galaxy. It was, among other things, an extended critique of the culture of print. Technology shapes our consciousness, McLuhan argued, and the development of the printed book in the mid-fifteenth century had inaugurated a reorientation of human experience towards the visual, the regimented, the uniform and instrumental. Language, which had once been a wild, uncontainable affair between the oral and aural (think whisper, shout, and song, the playful market-square dynamism of dialect and argot) was silenced, flattened, squeezed into lines evenly arrayed across the rectilinear space between the margins. Spellings were standardized, vernaculars frozen into national languages policed by strict academies.  Print, for McLuhan, was the driver behind all that we now recognize as modern. Through it nationalisms arose, and other horrors: capitalism, individualism, alienation. Time itself was emptied out-reduced, like the words on each page, to a linear sequence of homogeneous moments.  Print had stolen something. Books had shrunk us. They had "denuded" conscious life. "All experience is segmented and must be processed sequentially," McLuhan mourned. "Rich experience eludes the wretched mesh or sieve of our attention."

An end was in sight. We had already entered a "new electric age" characterized by interdependence rather than segmentation. "The world has become a computer," McLuhan wrote, "an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction." The Internet was still a Cold-War fantasy, but for McLuhan print's corpse was already growing cold. (He dated the collapse of the "Gutenberg Galaxy" to 1905 and Einstein's early work on relativity.) This was not necessarily cause for optimism. McLuhan coined the phrase "global village" to describe the hyper-networked world that was already taking shape. He had no illusions, though, about the nobility of village life. Our newly TV-, telephone-, and radio-enwebbed multiverse could just as easily be ruled by "panic terrors ... befitting a world of tribal drums" as by any bright pastoral harmony. And so it was and is.

In 1967, when Jacques Derrida took up the theme of "the end of the book" in Of Grammatology, McLuhan's ideas were still sufficiently in the air that the philosopher could refer to "this death of the civilization of the book of which so much is said" without need for further explanation. But the "civilization of the book," for Derrida, meant more than the era of moveable type. It preceded Gutenberg, and even the medieval rationalists who wrote of "the book of nature" and via that metaphor understood the material world as revelation analogous to scripture. The book for Derrida stood in for an entire metaphysics that reached back through all of Western thought: a conception of existence as a text that could be deciphered, a text with a stable meaning lodged somewhere outside of language. "The idea of the book is the idea of a totality," he wrote. "It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic energy and ... against difference in general." Those, in case you couldn't tell, are fighting words.

It is perhaps a symptom of print's decline that the current conversation about the book's demise has forgotten all these other ones.  Instead we shuttle between two equally hollow poles: goofball digital boosterism a la Negroponte on one side and on the other a helpless, anguished nostalgia for the good old days of papercuts. Call it bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object-as if Jeff Bezos could be convinced to lay e-profits aside by recalling for a moment the soft, woody aroma of a yellow-paged Grove Press paperback; as if there were nothing more to books than paper, ink, and glue.

For the record, my own loyalties are uncomplicated. I adore few humans more than I love books. I make no promises, but I do not expect to purchase a Kindle or a Nook or any of their offspring. I hope to keep bringing home bound paper books until my shelves snap from their weight, until there is no room in my apartment for a bed or a couch or another human being, until the floorboards collapse and my eyes blur to dim. But the book, bless it, is not a simple thing.

Nor, as we know it, is it particularly venerable. All of our words for book refer, at root, to forms no longer recognizable as such: biblos being the Greek word for the pith of the papyrus stalk (on which texts in the Greco-Roman world were inscribed); libri being Latin for the inner bark of a tree, just as the Old English bóc and Old Norse bók referred to the beech tree. Likewise "tome" is from a Greek word for a cutting (of papyrus) and "volume" is from the Latin for a rolled-up thing — a scroll, which is the form most texts took until they were replaced by folded parchment codices. Prior to the late 13th century, when paper was first brought to Europe from China, the great works of Western civilization were recorded on the skins of animals. The Inca wrote by knotting strings. The ancient Chinese scrawled calligraphy on cliffs. (Do mountains count as books?) The printed, paper book, as we know it, dates only to the mid-fifteenth century, but those early Gutenberg exemplars were hardly something you'd curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The book as an affordable object of mass production — as something directly kin to the books that line our shelves — was not born until the 19th century, just in time for the early announcements of its death.

But what could it mean for the book to die? Which sort of book? And what variety of death? What if the book had only ever lived by dying?  What if it were only ever present through its absence, like the figure of the book that is sketched over the many volumes of Edmond Jabès' poetry, so loved by Derrida? ("The book dives and drowns in books still to be written which are only its repeated efforts to escape death or, rather, the illegibility to which it is pledged.") Or like the uppercase Book described by Bruno Schulz, who opened his 1937 collection Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass with an odd and wonder-filled short story titled simply, "The Book." Four years after its publication, German troops marched into the small southeastern Polish city of Drogobych, where Schulz lived. And though Schulz was Jewish (as was Jabès, not at all coincidentally), he resisted his friends' attempts to smuggle him to safety. Two years into the occupation, Schulz was shot in the street by the SS, his own last book — The Messiah, he called it — unfinished and now lost for good.

In the world of Schulz's fiction, The Book is, to borrow a tic from Derrida, always already lost. The story opens with a coy admission of defeat: "I am simply calling it The Book without any epithets or qualifications," Schulz begins, confessing "a shade of helplessness ... for no word, no allusion, can adequately suggest the shiver of fear, the presentiment of a thing without name that exceeds all our capacity for wonder." Of course words are all he has, and with them he goes on to recall the Book from a hazy, near-forgotten epoch "somewhere in the dawn of childhood," when he saw it lying on his father's desk. Sometimes, when his father was away, the child narrator would watch as birds — whole "flocks of swallows and larks" — erupted from its pages. Sometimes the wind opened it "like a huge cabbage rose [and] the petals, one by one, eyelid under eyelid, all blind, velvety, and dreamy, slowly disclosed a blue pupil, a colored peacock's heart, or a chattering nest of hummingbirds."

Then, for years perhaps — chronology is more than hazy here — the Book disappears from memory. One night it returns to the narrator in a dream. He wakes and scours the shelves. He demands that his parents tell him what's become of it. They humor him, pushing various volumes into his hands. His father hands him a Bible and he scoffs: "Why do you give me that ... clumsy falsification? What have you done with The Book?"

Here Schulz parts ways with all but the most heretical of his own People of the Book. The text Schulz's narrator is searching for exceeds the virtue of any mere Torah scroll. It's nothing as banal as the old Book of Nature either. The father tries to deny that it exists, to belittle it as a childish fiction we all grow out of — like Santa Claus or a god that loves us. The narrator knows better: "I knew then that The Book is a postulate, that it is a goal." Soon after, when the housekeeper laughs aloud at an ad for a miraculous hair tonic ("I, Anna Csillag, born at Karlovice in Moravia, had a poor growth of hair..."), the narrator grabs a sheaf of "advertisements and personal announcements" from her hands, recognizing in it, "The Book, its last pages, the unofficial supplement, the tradesman's entrance full of refuse and trash!" She had been tearing out its pages all along to wrap his father's lunches.

Like all of Schulz's fictions, "The Book" is set in an atmosphere of painful, almost unfathomable drabness — think wintry provincial Poland, all the world "a gray and empty Tuesday" — but one over which reality is stretched like a delicate skin, a membrane shivering with infinite possibility. So it is here: in print's crudest manifestation, in a mail-order catalog, he finds vestiges of "the authentic Book, the holy original." Its pages hawk miracle cures, barrel organs, songbirds, the services of "a certain Mme. Magda Wang," experienced in "the 'dressage' of men."

Soon, all these advertised offerings have climbed from their columns of print, rebelling against the dull tyranny of margins. They take over the story. Legions of cripples, relieved of their ailments by one magic elixir and graced by another with prodigious growths of hair, cast aside their crutches and march off through the "white villages steeped in prose and drabness." They follow their leader, Anna Csillag, like an "odyssey of beavers, roaming from town to town with barrel organs," singing aloud as bright multitudes of finches take flight from their instruments. The Book is not all joy and birdsong, though even its darkness titillates: the village the cripples leave behind will be shortly taken over by "the cynical and perverse Magda Wang."

Towards the end of the story, Schulz reveals "a strange characteristic of the script, which by now no doubt has become clear to the reader: it unfolds while being read, its boundaries open to all currents and flexibilities." And so it turns out that after all that searching, The Book — dead again and lost forever, living only in hoarse echoes and degraded traces — has not been written yet. The world is unfinished and "god" a word half-spoken. The Book is a mountain, a goatskin, a forest, a slab of clay, a knotted string, a blinking screen, a reed, a flock of finches. It is a chorus line of electrons. Don't freak out. You can't buy it or sell it no matter what you do. You'd be a fool to want to own it. Except through writing it and reading it and participating thereby in its creation — The Book always eludes us.  Until we're done, which may be soon, books will be with us: dead as always, the picture of health.