Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Fragment

I recently gave a talk on the history and future of the archive. Here is something that didn’t make it into the presentation, which I’ll deposit here (a part of my personal archive).

When I hear or read something about “the end of the book” (e.g.)—and this is not an infrequent occurrence—a number of questions come to mind.

First, I wonder why apocalyptic language is used. To quote Umberto Eco, “in the history of culture it has never happened that something has simply killed something else. Something has profoundly changed something else” (“Afterword,” in The Future of the Book [University of California Press, 1996], 304). (Eco begins his essay with a reference to Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which a character compares a book to a cathedral and says, “Ceci tuera cela”—“this will kill that,” the book will kill the cathedral.)

Second, what is book? Usually, what is being discussed is the printed codex. But what about manuscript codices or codices of mixed media? What about writing technologies before the codex, such as scrolls and tablets? (I’ve touched on the etymologies of biblos and book elsewhere on this site.) Extent is another issue: In 1877, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford wrote to a publisher: “The statutes regulating copyright have never defined the meaning of the word 'book' as used repeatedly by the law, nor do they afford any answer to the query as to what or how much is protected or may be covered by the entry of a book.” (This quote appears in a footnote in Carl Ostrowski’s “‘The Choice of Books’: Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the Ideology of Reading, and Literary Collections at the Library of Congress in the 1870s,” Libraries & the Cultural Record 45 [2010]: 83, available via Project Muse.)

Finally, assertions or prophecies about “the end” often fail to explore fully the more interesting question of telos: what are books for?