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The Long Goodbye

“Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit,” writes Leah Price in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Her essay, Dead Again, traces predictions of the book’s demise back to the early 19th century. Long before e-readers and other digital technologies:

Théophile Gautier’s novel “Mademoiselle de Maupin” had already declared that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.” This was in 1835. And Gautier was only one-upping Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” which, four years earlier, depicted an archdeacon worrying the book would kill the cathedral, and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were throwing the scribes out of work. (The novel is set a quarter-century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust.)

At long last, a New York Times writer acknowledges what we at Obsolescing have been saying for a long time: predicting and lamenting the book’s demise is an age-old habit. Cultural and social critics thrive on recycling that tired trope: looking back with regret and forward with doubt and fear (and occasionally excitement).

Personally, I was thrilled to learn that waning technology is a key theme in Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Now I’ve got to go read it!). But Price, a specialist in Victorian literature at Harvard, also offers a compelling analysis of novelists who look forward into a bleak, book-less future. She delightfully catalogues the fantastical (sometimes eerily prescient) technologies 19th and 20th century science fiction writers invented to destroy books (and tyrannize the freedom of the human imagination), from Aldous Huxley’s “feelies” to Ray Bradbury’s firemen. And she exposes the paradox in these dystopian visions: while books may vanish, the libraries that house them nearly always survive.

Writers foresaw space travel, time travel, virtual reality and, endlessly, the book’s demise; what they never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.

The insight that sticks with me appears early in the essay:

In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another. Television didn’t kill radio any more than radio ended reading.

One might quibble that television fundamentally changed radio — and movies too — but how old technologies answer and adapt to the new is a topic for another essay. The larger point Price makes is more important.  Progress is rarely the juggernaut we fear. Our technologies don’t come to us like a line of tyrannical despots, beheading predecessors in order to claim dominance. Rather than usurp, they draw on and respond to what’s come before. 

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