The following is a feature article from the inaugural issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal, which is now on sale in bookstores, at Amazon, and B&N.com. It is also shipped free to Sustaining Members.
WE'RE LIVING IN A WEIRD MOMENT. Everything has become archivable. Our devices produce a constant record of our actions, our movements, our thoughts. Forget memory: if we wanted to, we could reconstruct every aspect of a life with an iPhone and some hard drives. But at the same time, physical archives seem to be fading away. Once, they were supported by a whole ecology of objects and institutions, including prints, presses, notebooks, letters, diaries, manuscripts, and marginalia. Now, each of these is vanishing, one after another. Letters don’t get written. Handwriting’s been forgotten. Presses crumble. Paper molders. And everyone agrees: the book is next to go.
Of course it won’t happen all at once. Maybe it isn’t even happening now. Digital books are increasingly popular — but paper books are more popular still. Publishing is a mess — unless you’re a giant multinational or a thriving independent. Readership is in decline — but that depends on what you think ought to be read. Paper is a frustrating anachronism — and our offices and homes are full of it. The clash of technologies that we’re living through is probably less a case of the silents vs. the talkies than of radio vs. TV. However popular e-readers become, paper books will still be able to carve out a space in their shadow, at least in the short term.
But how long will the short term last? It used to be possible to imagine books disappearing in the distant future. Now it feels like even money that it’s going to happen within our lifetimes. I grew up doing everything with pencil and paper. Now I’d rather whittle a fence than write an essay longhand. Paper is starting to feel like a Luddite affectation, on par with mustache wax or making your own yogurt. Pretty soon, with no context to sustain it, it’s going to slide into the realm of pure anachronism, the sort of thing you do to one-up your neighbors, and have to explain to your kids.
“Every part of the book has a history of its own.”
Can we think our way back to a time before the great digitization? Before the Cloud? Before Google Glass and cortical implants and neuro-adaptive braille, before human uploads and the Hive? Before reading on, go get a book and hold it in front of you… Now, leaf through it. Notice the typeface. The symmetry. The geography of the ink. But be careful: it is liable to tear, or fall apart altogether.
This was the main way information was recorded and transmitted. What an amazing technology. Invented before gunpowder or the stirrup, the book lasted longer than the steam engine and the rotary phone. Every part of it was adapted for human use over hundreds of years of trial and error. Notice the height and the width of the spine, perfectly suited to the palm. Do you see the width of these pages? They’re set in relation to our natural vision span, which relates in turn to the size of the macula in the human eye.
The materials that went into making a book could be selected to fulfill specific needs. They could be cheap and light or heavy and durable. A book made from vellum could easily last a thousand years — more if the conditions were right. A large parchment codex might consume the skins of a hundred or more cows. Paper books could be small enough to hold in your pocket or under your clothes. In the Middle Ages, some books were treasures kept between jeweled covers — the kind of thing it was worth jumping into a longship to steal. Many people kept books close to their hearts. Michael Marullus kept a copy of Lucretius under his armor when he rode into battle. Harry Widener went down on the Titanic with a copy of Francis Bacon’s Essaies.
Every part of the book has a history of its own. Paper was brought to the west after a battle between the Arabs and Chinese by Samarkand. The Japanese made a splendid paper out of rags. Before the printing press it could take months to make by hand. Printing introduced quantity and speed. Gutenberg made his ink in small batches out of lamb black and sulfur. Looking at his letters is like staring into a pool of tar. The oldest piece of print was found in a cave. It’s a speech by the Buddha, and it asks the reader to imagine all the grains of sand in the River Ganges, and then to imagine a world in which there were as many Ganges as grains of sand.
“The death of the book isn’t an actual death. It’s the death of an idea.”
For almost 2,000 years, a technology called the codex held a monopoly on the physical form of truth. The codex was made popular by members of the early Christian church, who gathered individual scrolls and letters between two covers, creating a bible. With time, the Christian book replaced the pagan scroll, and ever since, our relationship to the format has been tinged by a reverence that’s at once reflexive and frequently denied.
The written word has long been held to be close to the sacred. Milton thought that books made better receptacles for human souls than bodies. Jews and Muslims in the Middle Ages refused to throw out any texts, lest they inadvertently destroy the name of God. Perhaps the purest expression of the idea that books are a form of life comes in the story told by the Mandeans, an Iraqi people who practice a gnostic religion. One of the Mandeans’ great sages was a creature named Dinanukht, who was half-book and half-man. He sat by the waters between worlds, reading himself until the end of time.
Today, reverence for books survives only in an attenuated form. We are reluctant to destroy them, and it grieves us to see them destroyed. There’s more than a hint of idolatry in this feeling of loving the object more than the word. But so what? The very fact that books are frail physical objects is part of what makes them endearing. They’re like us. We don’t live in a realm of pure thought, and neither do they.
Fetishism is a word that comes up again and again in discussions about the rise of e-books and the end of print. Tim Parks, writing in The New York Review of Books, praised digital books for not giving us the “fetishistic gratification” of covering “our walls with famous names.” According to Parks, the passage from paper to digital texts is like graduating from children’s stories to works “for grown-ups.” By “discouraging anything but our focus on where we are in the sequence of words,” ebooks give us the “essence of the literary experience.”
So, paper is childish, outmoded, and a bit perverted to boot. But why is a scrolling blur of disembodied letters closer to the supposed essence of literature than a spoken performance or time spent in the presence of charismatic objects? Manuscripts communicate in ways electronic texts, and even printed books, can’t. They speak to presence — to the presence of a person, to the physicality of their body and the instant of their creation. What’s more, the meaning we derive from any text is inextricable from the web of perceptions and impressions that structures our reception of it: the heft of the paper, the smell of the binding, the shape of the handwriting. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze called this tactile intermediary the logique du sens. Pace Parks, there is no “essence of literary experience” that precedes its embodiment.
After reading the autographed manuscript of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love at the Ransom Center Library at UT Austin, Dave Hickey found that “the steady, curving logic of Lawrence’s insistent handwriting (no mark-outs, no interlinear revision) had so totally infected my reading of the narrative” that afterwards he could never look at the printed book “without feeling the terrible absence of Lawrence’s brown, intimate cursive drawn across a page in Cornwall nearly a century ago.” Fifty years later, in the same library, Maria Bustillos came closer than any other writer to the mystery of David Foster Wallace’s inner life by reading the underlinings and annotations in his collection of self-help books.
“Reading is a conversation with the dead.”
That line’s been used by a thousand professors to make their seminars sound like experiments in classroom necromancy. But anyone who has spent time working in archives has had the experience of opening a box or a volume that seemed to trail wisps of ectoplasm behind it, like a medium in a Victorian séance. It’s a jolt of immediacy that comes through like an electric shock. I’ve had this happen to me a couple of times: in the pages of a ledger book covered in drawings by a Cheyenne Indian boy removed to a reservation in the 1870s; in the burgundy goatskin binding of a Gospel buried with St. Cuthbert before the arrival of the Vikings on Lindisfarne; in an entry in the New Orleans Police suspicious persons lists for 1915 for Willie Jones, alias Little Willie.
I even felt it in the crushingly mundane records of the propaganda arm of the first postwar Polish government. Turning over a yellowing memo about office supplies, I discovered that it had been written on the reverse of a document, apparently left behind by the retreating Nazis, that listed the minutes for the Stadtkreis Christmas party of December 25, 1943. After toasting Hitler, everyone had punch.
Most documents transmit something about their authors or the means of their own composition; some bring you into direct contact with their bodies. There used to be a letter on display in the Musée Carnavelet in Paris that Robespierre was signing at the moment Convention troops entered his room to end the French Revolution. His signature is interrupted and the paper is stained with blood: depending on who you believe, Robespierre was either shot just as he was about to put his imprimatur on a new reign of terror, or he leaned away from the brink on his own, and shot himself to evade capture. Berkeley’s Rare Books Room has Richard Brautigan’s manuscripts. He committed suicide while working on his last one, so the library holds the brain that composed In Watermelon Sugar and Trout Fishing in America, dried and pressed on numbered sheets.
“Electronic information lasts forever — until someone turns off the light.”
“Manuscripts don’t burn,” says the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The idea is that, once a text exists, it’s indestructible. It exists forever in some other mind, and some other place. Bulgakov would have felt the irony in the phrase, having burnt several manuscripts of his own, but the sentence became one of the most famous in 20th-century Russian literature nonetheless. Manuscripts don’t burn. But, of course, they do. Oceans swallow them. Air weakens them. Water rots them. Mice eat them. Bugs burrow into them. And fire ravages them. Loving books involves committing to a cycle of destruction and lamentation, from lost last copies to cataclysmic floods, from house fires to military campaigns, from accident and neglect to deliberate holocausts.
Of all these conflagrations, the most tragic may be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, some time between 48 BC and AD 642. Julius Caesar burnt it down by accident in between trysts with Cleopatra after one of her generals tried to barbecue him in the palace. At least that’s what Livy said. Except that can’t be right, because Strabo consulted the library a generation later for his Geography. And besides, we have a receipt from 173 AD for a boat bought by the ex-vice librarian — no library, no librarian; no librarian, no boat. So who destroyed the library? Christians liked to blame the Caliph Umar. Supposedly, he told his generals that since everything in the library that accorded with the Koran was unnecessary, and everything that disagreed with it was blasphemous, there was no need to preserve any of it — and so the books were distributed to the public baths, where they kept the waters warm for a good six months. But, as Edward Gibbon pointed out, this is slander of a later date. Gibbon himself preferred to blame the Christians, especially the terrible archbishop Theophilus, who had led his flock in the storming of the pagan temple of Serapis, the looting of its treasures, and the destruction of its idols. There is good reason to believe, however, that by Theophilus’s time, the late fourth century AD, the library was already long gone. Lately it’s become fashionable to make Queen Zenobia of Palmyra the culprit — an exotic and exciting choice, but the claim depends on a single ambiguous line in Ammianus Marcellinus.
The sad truth is that all these accounts are what Freud would have called “screen memories,” guards against a more discomfiting truth. Because the truth that no one wants to admit is that the library died from neglect. Alexandria is a port city; papyrus, exposed to its sea air, will only last a little over a hundred years. As the centuries passed, the Ptolemys’ 500,000 scrolls simply wore away and vanished into dust. Without perpetual reinvestment, without constant care and stewardship, this is the fate of all archives and all repositories of knowledge. It’s as true today as it was then. After all, even in bad conditions papyrus lasts a century. Depending on the quality, paper can last a few years or a few hundred. Vellum can keep going for a thousand. Electronic information lasts forever — until someone turns off the light.
Maybe Parks is right. Maybe the impulse behind all this morbid bibliophilia is just idolatry, and the sound of pages being flipped in those clean beige carrels is no different from the rattle of bones in a reliquary.
There is something pagan about the need to get so close to the body of the author, to what Andrei Codrescu, following Phillip Roth, calls the “human stain” in his insightful book Bibliodeath: My Archives (2012). But what will happen after the human stain disappears from the infinitely capacious archives of the future? I have no doubt that literature can survive for a while without embodied meanings and fragile icons, but I wonder — for how long?
For 500 years, technology has been playing Whac-a-mole with aura, that magnetic charge that texts and works of art gain from proximity to their makers. The printing press, the photograph, the Inkjet, the computer screen: each added another layer of mediation and put the author further from our grasp. And yet, aura keeps coming back, in first editions, original negatives, signed copies, vintage covers. Now you can even detect it in old computer consoles. The Emory University Library maintains computer stations in its Rare Books reading room that allow its users to experience an emulation of the exact “native digital environment” in which Salman Rushdie composed Midnight’s Children. Such emulations are increasingly becoming the norm.
And why not? Why shouldn’t thumb drives and iPads have a logique du sens of their own, every bit as potent as that of notebooks or blood-stained paper rolls? In the archives of the future, we’ll stroll from Proust’s notepad and cork-lined room (already on display in the Musée Carnavalet) to Jonathan Franzen’s dim Manhattan studio, where, with curtains drawn and noise-cancelling headphones on, we’ll be able to step into the teal nightmare of Windows 95 just as he experienced it in the summer of ’96. Or we’ll scroll through great authors’ browser histories. If Tolstoy had a Flickr stream, wouldn’t you want to see it? Wouldn’t you like to know what kind of porn Shakespeare preferred or what line of poetry Virginia Woolf Googled before she filled her pockets up with stones? These will be the archives of the future. That is, if there are archives in the future.
“We all know the story by now. It’s been told so many times.”
The sources of disaster are different — nuclear attack, race war, Cormac McCarthy’s “long shear of light” — but the story is always the same. All the books on Earth, or in America, vanish, leaving behind a precious few that the survivors cherish like holy relics. Call it the myth of the last bookshelf. In Robie Macauley’s A Secret History of Time to Come, the last bookshelf includes Home Radio Repair, Shorthand Made Easy: The Greg System, and Lawrence Welk: The Man and his Music. In Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro, it consists of The Sun Also Rises, All About Dinosaurs, and Nagasaki: The Forgotten Bomb. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, it’s a shopping list. In Fahrenheit 451, it’s the people themselves, memorizing books so the fires won’t be able to touch them.
It seems that it’s easier to imagine the destruction of all books than it is to imagine a future for literature. Science fiction ought to be a guide, but it isn’t a very good one. Our imagination of the future is conditioned by the present, but it lags behind it, too. Stanisław Lem saw the approach of bibliodeath, but he thought it would be caused by a chemical catalyst brought back from outer space, not digitization. In God Emperor of Dune (the one with a gigantic sandworm with a human face on the cover — the illustrations of alien animal-human hybrids on SF paperbacks determined much of my early adolescent reading, as well as contributing to a fair amount of sexual confusion), Frank Herbert imagined a perfect archive, 13,000 or so years in the future. It was transcribed by telepathic machines directly from their owner’s thoughts onto sheets of molecular-thin crystal paper in an underground vault. The choice of paper — however futuristic — has an odd pathos, especially when you realize Herbert was the first novelist to use a word processor and submit his work on floppy disk.
No one knows yet what the future of the book will be. Paper may be dying, to be replaced by electronic readers of various kinds, but as a historical development this appears to be just a way station, a momentary pause on the road to stranger things.
“Imagine humans as locks and books as the keys that unlock us.”
Maybe literature’s future lies not in quality but in quantity. Jorge Luis Borges suggested something like this in “The Library of Babel.” In Borges’s story, the universe is a library, composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries. Each hexagon is furnished with five bookshelves. Each bookshelf holds 32 books. Each book contains 410 pages; each page, 40 lines; each line, approximately 80 black letters. No two books are alike. Most are gibberish. A precious few contain a comprehensible line. Librarians spend their lives searching through them for the total book, “the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books” that would justify their labors.
Borges’s library exposes an essential problem of combinatorial literature. Its unnamed narrator comforts himself with the thought that, even though the number of these combinations is unimaginably vast, it is not infinite. But it may as well be. Start with one of those 410-page volumes. Since no two volumes are alike, the library must contain every copy with one misprint — that’s about 31 million books. Take it to four misprints and you have a number of books in multiples of 10^27. Try to make every possible variation of the original book, and pretty soon you run out of room in the universe.
Imagine humans as locks and books as the keys that unlock us. (What is a book anyway but a long cipher, addressed to our hearts?) The Library of Babel proves that there won’t be a brute force solution to cracking this code. No matter the speed or the size of the computer, a random-walk approach to creating new classics will always run out of space. Instead of stumbling into masterpieces by chance, the literature of the future will be mined out of our speech. Each day we send 2.5 exabytes of information into the ether. All words ever spoken would comfortably fit on five exabytes (at least according to internet folklore). The novels of the next millennium will be assembled out of this trove according to pre-set templates. They’d be like those churches in Ethiopia that are carved directly out of living rock — masterpieces of negative space floating amidst the dross. With time, the algorithms will improve. Inside the boundless multiplicity of our speech, new forms will incubate, waiting to burst forth like alien spawn. Seen from the vantage point of this far-off future, the book appears as just one episode in the history of literature. A good episode, but an episode all the same.
The seeds of this future are already evident: Philip M. Parker has created a program that writes books on hundreds of thousands of topics on demand, by repurposing and rearranging material found in the public domain. His works include the intriguingly titled 2007-2012 Outlook for Tufted Washable Scatter Rugs, Bathmats, and Sets That Measure 6-Feet by 9-Feet or Smaller in India. Parker is now at work on a program for writing romance novels. After all, as he says, “There are only so many body parts.”
Meanwhile, digital humanists in various fields are coming ever closer to the efficient evaluation of literary style. Scholars at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin have trained a computer to recognize novelistic genres. Their programs can tell a gothic from a bildungsroman without any human input (almost). Other efforts leave something to be desired. The computational narrative program GRIOT, designed by the new media artist D. Fox Harrell of MIT’s ICE lab, generates poems based on user input. Typing <Europe> yields, at first, the phrase, “Europeans and beauty relish, create entitlement and cool ringing in the ears of the girl with skin of smugness and kindness blended with neck.” According to the website I Write Like, most of this essay is written in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. The beginning of Moby Dick sounds like William Shakespeare, while the ending of The Great Gatsby reads, apparently, as if it was written by Edgar Allan Poe. Darren Wershler and Bill Kennedy’s Apostrophe Engine scours the internet to create a poem in which every line begins with “You are…” as in “You are a Captain’s log, supplemental” and “You are a pipefitter with a penchant for Descartian ontology.”
“I, for one, welcome the coming of our robot masters.”
The current attempts at machine-led literary analysis and production (you know — what used to be called writing) tend to be pretty feeble. But they’re also in their infancy. What will their capabilities be in a hundred years? In a thousand? Playing with their crude interfaces, I don’t know where I am on the historical continuum: will computerized authors submit work to computerized critics?
Orality, literacy, manuscripts, print, paper, screens — it’s all a cycle. After we give up on the written word, maybe instead we’ll go back to the beginning, to song. I’d be alright with that, too; there’s plenty in our lives that deserves to be recited with a lyre.
Technological obsolescence runs in my blood. My great-grandfather was a master bookbinder. I mean this in the literal sense; he was first an apprentice, then a journeyman, and finally a master after completing a meisterstück — he repaired a medieval missal for a monastery. (We had a few of the books he made with their carefully stitched spines and marbled green covers he designed himself. Their pages were yellow and as brittle as ancient scrolls, their acid paper having long since descended into its final crisis.) By the time he reached middle age, his profession had become redundant. After many years without work, he donated his tools to a university library and died unemployed.
A generation later, my grandfather left the shtetl to fight in the war. He learned about computers and helped build the first one in his country. Politics and race ended his career. But in old age he dreamed of perfecting the science of cybernetics, which would finally resolve the information problem in socialist economies. He was close to the right side of history but, in the end, chose the wrong one. His name, before he was forced to change it, was Bezalel, the same as the carpenter who built the Tabernacle and who knew the number and letter of all things.
“Just what will this writing do?”
In Plato’s Phaedrus, the Egyptian gods object to the invention of writing. They said it would destroy memory and foster arrogance on the part of mankind. Maybe they were right all along. Think of all we’ve lost by succumbing to literacy — all the capacity for memory, all the imagination and verse, all the forms and songs. Think of those poor Yugoslav bards studied by Milman Parry who lost all their epics when they learned to read the newspaper. They must have felt like they had traded their birthright for a bowl of pottage.
But the written word is a virus. There’s no turning back the clock on literacy. Even if we descend to communication by shouts or pheromones or feral emoticons, writing will outlast us. Unmoored from objects, the literature of the future will be infinite, iterational, and immaterial. I like to imagine the cybernetic authors of the future at home on some satellite in high orbit, quietly floating through space, 10,000 years after every trace of our era has disappeared from the surface of Earth. Decade after decade the programs will write their tired potboilers and predictable coming of age novels, their wistful Brooklyn comedies and sad Russian satires. Over time, they will gradually tire of these antiquated forms. Increasingly they will try to write from life, to express in binary language the pain of their fragmented hard drives, the loneliness of their aseptic orbits, the monotonous cycle of day and night, the lonely work of archiving a civilization that has long since forgotten its past. In this future, history exists as an eternal present. Through endless new iterations, timelines gradually blur. Libraries and apocalypses multiply. Books vanish and reappear. Vikings stream out of attack ships to burn the Library of Alexandria. Virginia Woolf leads Caesar’s legions into the Thames while cybernetic Miltons write hymns in honor of their machine gods. Under the forest canopies, humanlike primates curse each other in emojis, while on the edge of the solar halo, Lev Tolstoy, reincarnated as an artificial intelligence, born with no memory of his own future, sits down to write the book of his life.
Jacob Mikanowski is a graduate student in European History at UC Berkeley. He has recently written for The Point, The Awl and HiLoBrow.com.