Wednesday 14 August 2013

The End of Books

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This is absolutely incredible. I accidentally stumbled across this essay on Wiki the other day: The End of Books.

You can read the whole thing by following that link, but here's a summary. The reason it's so incredible is that it was written by author Octave Uzanne who, inspired by a discussion at the Royal Institute in 1894, postulated that books would become obsolete, to be replaced by... walkmans!

Laugh you may, but listen to his rationale. It's more than a little impressive:

I think that if books have a destiny, that destiny is on the eve of being accomplished; the printed book is about to disappear. After us the last of books, gentlemen!

He reasoned that:

1. The printed word would be rendered obsolete by advances in sound recording:

Printing, which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought, and of which Luther said that it is the last and best gift by which God advances the things of the Gospel — printing, which has changed the destiny of Europe, and which, especially during the last two centuries, has governed opinion through the book, the pamphlet, and the newspaper — printing, which since 1436 has reigned despotically over the mind of man, is, in my opinion, threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.

2. This would happen because people don't have the attention span:

I take my stand, therefore, upon this incontestable fact, that the man of leisure becomes daily more reluctant to undergo fatigue, that he eagerly seeks for what he calls the comfortable, that is to say for every means of sparing himself the play and the waste of the organs. You will surely agree with me that reading, as we practise it today, soon brings on great weariness; for not only does it require of the brain a sustained attention which consumes a large proportion of the cerebral phosphates, but it also forces our bodies into various fatiguing attitudes. If we are reading one of our great newspapers it constrains us to acquire a certain dexterity in the art of turning and folding the sheets; if we hold the paper wide open it is not long before the muscles of tension are overtaxed, and finally, if we address ourselves to the book, the necessity of cutting the leaves and turning them one after another, ends by producing an enervated condition very distressing in the long run.

All similar inconveniences the Kindle has sought to address with its variable font size, easy to hold shape, and press-a-button page turning. 

3. Audiobooks would be the thing of the future, transported by walkman (as pictured at the top of this post):

There will be registering cylinders as light as celluloid penholders, capable of containing five or six hundred words and working upon very tenuous axles, and occupying not more than five square inches all the vibrations of the voice will be reproduced in them; we shall attain to perfection in this apparatus as surely as we have obtained precision in the smallest and most ornamental watches...

Each will work his pocket apparatus by a fluent current ingeniously set in action; the whole system may be kept in a simple opera-glass case, and suspended by a strap from the shoulder.

4. He predicted that self-publishing would be the name of the game:

[T]he author will become his own publisher. To avoid imitations and counterfeits he will be obliged, first of all, to go to the Patent-Office, there to deposit his voice, and register its lowest and highest notes, giving all the counter-hearings necessary for the recognition of any imitation of his deposit. The Government will realize great profits by these patents.

Having thus made himself right with the law, the author will talk his work, fixing it upon registering cylinders. He will himself put these patented cylinders on sale; they will be delivered in cases for the consumption of hearers.

5. He perfectly predicted our desire for short info-bursts over florid prose, and the rise of RP in audio broadcasting:

Men of letters will not be called Writers in the time soon to be, but rather, Narrators. Little by little the taste for style and for pompously decorated phrases will die away, but the art of utterance will take on unheard-of importance. Certain Narrators will be sought out for their fine address, their contagious sympathy, their thrilling warmth, and the perfect accuracy, the fine punctuation of their voice...

Journalism will naturally be transformed; the highest situations will be reserved for robust young men with strong, resonant voices, trained rather in the art of enunciation than in the search for words or the turn of phrases; literary mandarinism will disappear, literators will gain only an infinitely small number of hearers, for the important point will be to be quickly informed in a few words without comment.

6. He guessed that there would still be a place for libraries as audio archives:

Libraries will be transformed into phonographotecks, or rather, phonostereoteks; they will contain the works of human genius on properly labelled cylinders, methodically arranged in little cases, rows upon rows, on shelves. 

7. And the place of actors in reading audiobooks:

Authors who are not sensitive to vocal harmonies, or who lack the flexibility of voice necessary to a fine utterance, will avail themselves of the services of hired actors or singers to warehouse their work in the accommodating cylinder. 

 8. He was scarily accurate about the role of radio and audio narration in journalism:

'And the daily paper,' you will ask me, 'the great press of England and America, what will you do with that?'

Have no fear; it will follow the general law, for public curiosity will go on forever increasing, and men will soon be dissatisfied with printed interviews more or less correctly reported. They will insist upon hearing the interviewee, upon listening to the discourse of the fashionable orator...  The voices of the whole world will be gathered up in the celluloid rolls which the post will bring morning by morning to the subscribing hearers.

9. And then he went on to predict television and movies!

You perhaps forget the great discovery of To-morrow, that which is soon to amaze us all; I mean the Kinetograph of Thomas Edison, of which I was so happy as to see the first trial at Orange Park, New Jersey, during a recent visit to the great electrician...

The kinetograph will be the illustrator of daily life; not only shall we see it operating in its case, but by a system of lenses and reflectors all the figures in action which it will present in photochromo may be projected upon large white screens in our own homes. Scenes described in works of fiction and romances of adventure will be imitated by appropriately dressed figurants and immediately recorded. We shall also have, by way of supplement to the daily phonographic journal, a series of illustrations of the day, slices of active life, so to speak, fresh cut from the actual. We shall see the new pieces and the actors at the theatre, as easily as we may already hear them, in our own homes; we shall have the portrait, and, better still, the very play of countenance, of famous men, criminals, beautiful women. It will not be art, it is true, but at least it will be life, natural under all its make-up, clear, precise, and sometimes even cruel.

What he could not have predicted was the internet. Perhaps we have that to thank for making sure this rather gloomy final prediction hasn't yet come to pass: assured that books will be forsaken by all the dwellers upon this globe, and printing will absolutely pass out of use except for the service it may still be able to render to commerce and private relations; and even there the writing-machine, by that time fully developed, will probably suffice for all needs.

So, what did his fellows think of this prediction?

This after-supper prophecy had some little success even among the most sceptical of my indulgent listeners; and John Pool had the general approval when he cried, in the moment of our parting:

"Either the books must go, or they must swallow us up. 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, and to be able at last to close our eyes upon the annihilation of printed things!"

Oh, John Pool! If only you but knew how many more stupid things might be spoken than written!

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