Papyralysis by Jacob Mikanowski Are paper books becoming obsolete in the digital age, or poised to lead a new cultural renaissance? November 14th, 2013 The following is a feature article from the inaugural issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal.
“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…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 G-d. 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…”