July 11, 2011

The end of books


This witty exercise in prognostication in Scribner's Magazine begins with a report of Sir William Thomson's calculation of the age of the sun. Unfortunately for Sir Thomson (Lord Kelvin), the publication of the special theory of relativity was a decade away. The math was fine, the results were useless.

Thomson's erroneous number--reported with great confidence--is a telling metaphor for the human inability to forecast how fast scientific advances--and errors--can upset the technological applecart. And yet conceptually, Octave Uzanne manages to predict the Walkman, the audio book, and television.

Keep in mind that he did so in 1894.

Parts of this article would be considered prescient if written in 1994. What Uzanne can't do is see past the limitations of the technologies available to him. He has a especially hard time not seeing technology as a zero-sum game, and dourly predicts that "phonography will probably be the destruction of printing."

However firmly he wedges tongue in cheek, he proves that not only does history repeat itself, but so do the same old arguments about literacy, taste, and the coming technological apocalypse. Nor can he stop himself from writing worshipfully of the past and condescendingly about the future.

We see nothing but copies of all sorts; copies of Old Masters accommodated to modern taste, adaptations ever false of epochs forever gone by, trite copies of nature as seen with a photographers eye . . . nothing that takes us out of our own humanity, nothing that transports us elsewhere.

Uzanne bemoans, "Can we indeed find many painters or sculptors who are truly original creators?" while anticipating in great detail the self-publishing revolution (then as now, it all comes down to distribution), and then fretting that it will generate just too much content for mere mortals to handle.

I calculate that, take the whole world over, from eighty to one hundred thousand books appear every year; at an average of a thousand copies, this makes more than a hundred millions of books, the majority of which contain only the wildest extravagances or the most chimerical follies, and propagate only prejudice and error. Our social condition forces us to hear many stupid things every day. A few more or less do not amount to very great suffering in the end; but what happiness not to be obliged to read them.

What Uzanne couldn't have anticipated is that in the future, the inundation would come as much from all that watching and listening, making reading a refuge.

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