Thoughts On Print’s Twilight (2014May23)


Friday, May 23, 2014                  1:58 PM

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My friend, Chris K., has brought up the grinding of gears that ensue when retail leviathan Amazon’s standards-and-future-goals butt heads with the last, great publishing houses’ standards-and-traditions. There’s a temptation to mention ‘buggy-whips’ and move on—but literacy is still a goal more than a condition in many parts of the world—and the question of how digital texts will impact that is only one of the many things that are being politely ignored by a First World culture that doesn’t dare appear as anti-progress, particularly against digital innovation.

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Reference books once wore a solemnity that stemmed from their careful accrual of methods, measurements, calculations, and organization of information that reaches back to Ptolemy, Archimedes, and Euclid. The precise science of modern astronomy still owes its huge record of observations of the night sky mostly to centuries and millennia of serious observation and record-keeping.

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The supertanker that chugs along mid-Pacific without any qualms over its exact location and bearing—these are supplied digitally, i.e. magically. What few people realize is that large reference-tables of important navigational values are built in to the ultra-post-modern instruments on the bridge. Without those tables of constant-values, a computer would have no better idea of its position than a human navigator without charts and table-books and chronometers.

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Having lost our hero-worship of literal ‘history’, we now have historians who look at certain people, places, and events from different points of perspective. We now recognize that history is as much a matter of missing documents and contradictory documents and accounts, as it is a matter of what we actually have on paper. Nonetheless, we treasure our Founding Documents, creating a whole sub-topic of document preservation and examination, within the library sciences (or is it archaeology?) Now that we are apparently just going to watch as printed matter becomes obsolete, without any battle-cry to preserve any real value in books, one wonders whether this makes our archival treasures more valuable or more trivial.

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Yes, we are losing something great by doing something new—but I still listen to broadcast radio, so what do I know? I was just yesterday bemoaning the disappearance of that great stationers shop in Brewster—it was a palace of office supplies.

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But my old industry, direct mail marketing , and the shopping-catalog boom were already threatening their existence before e-commerce really started. I remember it was newsworthy and remarkable when Sharper Image debuted the first store without a building—making big bucks in retail without paying rent—well, for the storefront, at least.

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Catalogs and third-party deliverers, like FedEx and UPS, created the ‘virtual mall’ before cyberspace opened its ‘e-doors’, if you will. Now that newspapers are passé (excepting The Gray Lady, of course) and e-books have a strong beachhead—now that education is focused as much on using digital tools as on using one’s mind (perhaps more so) we must let the grand tradition of bibliophilia sink or swim on its own virtue.

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Remember, there was once a paradigm wherein only the nobility were offered literacy, when artisan monks illuminated home-cured vellum with sometimes crushed-gem-based pigments, gold-leaf, and the great wellspring of imagination such labors bestowed upon them. Such treasures were one of a kind—Bibles might be copied, and perhaps a few other books, but many books of that era were unique treasures—as indicated by the practice of chaining them to the wall.

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That grandeur was lost when Gutenberg, et. al. began printing with movable type—mass-publication, relative to the copyists it replaced. Aside from ‘Domesday Books’ and other governmental and commercial records-keeping, there was really only one book—the Bible. The sudden ability to hand out copies to every churchgoer denied the priests, etc. of the power of interpretation—prior to Gutenberg, the Bible was what your Priest told you it was, it said what he said it said—case closed. On top of which, the Latin Scriptures were being made accessible by translations into common speech—which many church leaders felt was a sacrilegious degradation of the Word of God. That is why printing presses were illegal for about a hundred years after they were brought into common use. And printing is still a bone of contention between the authorities and the public, in some cases, even in America.

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The latest instance of this friction is, oddly enough, a digital publication by one Robert Snowden—and it must be noted that the sheer weight of his information, printed on paper, would have circumscribed it’s distribution without the existence of the Internet. So the benefits of digital text do exist—and they are tremendous. But it is hard for me to accept that something I have loved so faithfully all of my life, books, may become obsolete. As is usually the case, we will find out what we really lost, and how much, only after we’ve reached a point of no return.

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In the meantime, it should be remembered that self-publishing is a wonderful thing for a writer—it remains to be seen if its value holds true for the reader.

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