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In Praise of Old Technologies: The Book


Is the day of the Book at an end? (Photo credit: brody4)

Riyadh: Wednesday 16th May 2012 The Book as Tool

This is not the first, nor will it be the last tribute paid to the book. As long as people have been able to see and use books, they have been infuriated, educated, inspired, recorded events, opinions and accounts and been misled by them; and have loved the experience. From Car Manuals to the Doomsday Book to flat pack furniture instructions to Celebrity Autobiographies, books have accompanied us from the dawn of civilization to the threshold of artificial intelligence.

But most tributes to the book find room to include a tribute to the content of books, while others might also include a tribute to the medium of print, which allowed for mass literacy and the consumption of books.

Here, I just want to concentrate, for a moment or two on the tool itself. For, that is exactly what a book is, although we are prone to forget it: a tool for the accurate conveyance of words. Other technologies, such as Caxton’s printing press, the development of paper, invention of the novel or the discovery that a feather makes a half decent quill, have contributed to its development and improvement, but in reality, these have effectively done for the book what the micro processor, Typewriter and plastic, have done for the Computer.

The book is a technological advance on what went before it and it is also, a simple, dull functioning tool which can be wielded expertly or imperfectly, and which requires training and practice to correctly master. It is, in other words, much like a hammer, or an oven or a car. It even has moving parts.

And it shares other features of the tool. It is imperfect, and it wears out. It works better when looked after and works better in some environments than others. And frequently, it is of limited value in its own right, requiring to be complimented by other tools to make best use of it. Much as a chisel is of limited utility without a hammer, for many, the book is of limited use without reading glasses.

The value of the book.

And it is a tool that has been adjusted and enhanced and improved with time. The vast unwieldy works of Dark Age Monks were the works of whole lifetimes. These books were massive in size and were written out letter by letter by a tiny number of men, for a readership of miniscule breadth or diversity. They were not intended to be widely circulated. Rather they were intended to be kept safe and secure, usually in monasteries a great learned legacy to be maintained and studied by a tiny academic, theological elite. The vast effort required to produce them and the astonishing insight and scholarship required to interpret what lay within rendered an astonishing level of investment per word. Books therefore, were of colossal value in, and of, themselves. There purpose was correspondingly limited to the weighty matters of Theology, Nature and Statecraft (as in the case of the monumental record of English ownership, the doomsday book). In other words, books were, by the middle ages, the manuals of understanding the world. They were too expensive and valuable to be mere entertainment.

Today, despite the democratization of literacy and the incremental improvements that make the possession of a book (or books) open to many individuals of quite modest means, books can still attract a premium, just in themselves.

Take a widely published book like The Complete Works of Shakespeare. It can be found in any bookshop in the world, and in all the major languages of the world. But if you are unlucky enough to only speak a less widely spoken language, such as, for example, Scots Gaelic, Slovenian or Breton, you will pay considerably more for this book than readers in English, Serbian or French, as production runs are smaller and costs higher.

And it has other imperfections. It is almost useless in the dark, reacts badly to inclement weather, is easily lost, and in the case of larger books, is often difficult to carry around with you or read on a train. Try taking on the Complete Works as your commuter train companion and you will have strong forearms by the end.

And yet it has never been bettered or replaced. Few technologies can compete in this regard. The wheel is one. It looks much different now to its original incarnation but the basic combination of round body rotating on an axle is essentially unchanged. The knife too, is not really beaten. It is no longer made of flint and has massively diversified. But as long as we need to cut things with our hands, we will have the knife.

Civilization and the book.

Only the book is not like the wheel or the knife, is it? A world without the knife would require us to invent it to survive. The wheel is only slightly up the evolutionary ladder in this respect, necessary to attain even the most basic levels of civilization such as the capture and control of energy via water, the grinding of tough cereals into flour, or the transfer of cereals to market.

The Book is a quantum leap in terms of civilization because we don’t really need what it contains to survive. What a subsistence farmer needs to survive can be handed down through intergenerational learning and practice, slowly finding ways of rationalizing and improving methods or the quality of grain used to make bread through the eons long process of selecting the finer and more edible grains. At this level of social development, civilization moves slowly forward and the need to capture accurate distinctions from one generation to the next is negligible and may even be a hindrance to learning what you need to survive.

Only when society advances sufficiently to begin to develop complex bureaucracies does it become necessary to develop methods of information capture and record. And societies only begin to evolve such bureaucracies when they are required to cluster tribes together for protection.

There is an old saying that the pen is mightier than the sward. Well in a very real sense this is true. The first complex bureaucracies formed in Mesopotamia in response to the requirement for the farming communities to cluster together to resist marauders from the Mountains of Anatolia and Persia. Even then, this only became necessary when the world shifted on its axis (As it periodically does) and the Earth became warmer. This lead to a change in wind patterns and the regular monsoons which had seasonally penetrated from the Indian Ocean stopped coming.

Drought followed. Famine and pestilence followed and humans adapted, clustering together in bigger towns for mutual protection and stockpiling and rationing grain supplies.

 Civilization was born and with it the book (or at least stone tablets for purposes of record keeping).

Now, I am conscious that there is a growing movement in the Anglo-Saxon world, today to resist and reverse the intrusion of the Nation State in the lives of individuals. I am not unsympathetic to this on the grounds that humans, left to get on with their lives, generally do just that, without head of the State.

But in a Libertarian or Anarchist society, the rule of law becomes proportionately less important. Arbitration is less necessary in societies where disputes are best settled by individuals in their own ways. With that comes a decline in systems of bureaucracy which bind people to common ideas. Nations (and their State Infrastructures evolve in response to common interests requiring cooperation). In some societies, such as The Mid Western United States, it is easy to imagine that this can be achieved at a community level. There are no marauding tribes descending from the mountains in the Midwest. But in other societies, States evolve top down dictatorial and centralizing infrastructures and they generally do so in order to provide leadership and martial discipline to societies at threat. It is this basis which first developed in Mesopotamia and it is interesting to not that it, and its modern incarnation, Iraq, have followed a pattern whereby it is either rules by a strong, centralizing top down dictator or is ruled / influenced by one of its regional neighbors from the Mountains of Persia (Modern Iran), or Anatolia (today’s turkey).

In other words, Mesopotamia evolves the state which it needs to evolve to maintain its independence, just as the United States did, fighting a brutal war to retain a unified federal structure of top-down government required to effectively manage westward expansion and greater homogenization wrought by the forging of the telegraph, the railway and, critically… the book.

A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, first edition cove...

A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first edition cover, 1853. The debate over State’s Rights, would take place against a background of increasing polarizarion over slavery. South Carolina would be the first State to sesseed from the Union in 1861 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was ultimately the widespread success of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which convinced many northerners that the preservation of a slave economy in the cotton states was iniquitous. Though it did not in and of itself lead to the war, it helped solidify and polarize views which ultimately created the conditions necessary for war.

Libertarians in America may well be right (at least in the context of their own country, to suppose that their free society would be freer with a less intrusive state. They may be wholly correct in asserting that the nation should be based upon an individuals right to live life as he chooses. And they may be right either in asserting that this is better legislated for by a local State, responsive to its own electorate, or on at an individual community level through volunteerism and mutual shared interest and respect.

But central to these core beliefs, is an understanding of fundamental values communicated in religious texts, such as the bible or in the articles of the United States Constitution, neither of which would have been communicated in their current forms were it not for the book.

And the book would not have developed but for the need to record and legislate in newly complex societies under threat.

Bureaucracy leads to the book. The Book communicates and conveys ideas and develops Civilization, Civilization uses the book to examine the rights and responsibilities of individuals’ to the bureaucracy of  The State.

Such is the power of the book to allow complex civilizations to communicate ideas and allow humanity to re-examine its relationship with its itself.

So the book is the fundamental tool, not of existence, but of civilization. Yet it is not its importance which makes us revere it so much. As we have seen, we need the knife in order to be human. We only need the book in order to be civilized humans.

Our Relationship with the book.

So what makes our relationship with the book so important? Why do people love the smell of old books or libraries? Why do people jealously hoard books, or contribute huge sums of money toward the creation of public libraries.? What is it about the book which makes it a tool which we love, while the hammer, variations of which, are used by various types of ape today, indicating that be have used it since before we evolved opposable thumbs?

Well, to answer this, we need to look at its similarity to other tools which we love.

We love the car. In fact we don’t just love it. We adore it. People name their cars, they cherish their cars. Some people spend more time polishing their cars on a Saturday morning than they spend in physical contact with their partners during the remainder of the week. People feel symptoms of grief without their cars. And people adorn and decorate their cars.

You, dear reader, adorn and decorate your car! Don’t believe me? What colour is it? If the answer isn’t plain aluminum, you have a car which is decorated and adorned. Does your car have a badge, identifying its maker and type? You have an adorned car. Do you have a bumper sticker, or fluffy dice hanging from the mirror? Do you have a little flag or fish or a nodding dog in the back?

For the majority of people, the car is not merely a tool in their garage like a washing machine. It is a fundamental addition to the family.

Is it about the freedom it gives us? Is it because it is fantastically obedient to our every wish, waiting patiently to take us effortlessly wherever we wish to go? Or is it something deeper?

A washing machine also provides freedom. Women (in the main) were condemned to spend huge amounts of their lives hand-washing clothes, wringing water out of clothes and then drying clothes for their families before the advent of the washing machine. In an era when even wealthy men might own a dress shirt and an everyday shirt, several colors, attachable by buttons to the neckline, and perhaps a small drawer of other garments, the amount of fabric washing women were required to do is dwarfed by the number of separate items of clothes worn by the average man today. Yet, while before the family wash would require an entire day per week scrubbing, soaking, soaping, wringing out and drying, now an overworked woman might put five loads in during a day, and see them all out in 4.5 hours. She will still have to iron them (unless someone volunteers to help), but crucially the whole washing process has taken up under an hour of her day, with the machine doing the rest, providing up to 3.5 hours extra that her grandmother didn’t have.

And yet, the washing machine does not spell liberation as the car does. People don’t order flame red washing machines or washing machines with go-faster stripes. People don’t love the smell of old washing machines or assemble collections of washing machines which they will only use once each.

But then washing machines are not going to take us somewhere else each time. Cars and books don’t always do so either. Mostly we use them for the same predictable things. But they spell possibility with a directness which the washing machine does not.

The washing machine requires us to make a mental jump. It requires us to calculate the time it saves for us and work out what to do with it. A car allows us just to get in and drive. A book allows us to open and be transferred to the Savannahs of Southern Africa, the tastes of the orient, the history of the Ming dynasty or the chemical structure of carbon graphite.

The future of the book?

Now however,  technological advance threatens the book. The technology is outdated and in need of upgrade. Why devote a whole room to 500 books when the technology exists to carry 5000 books in a tool the size of a pamphlet?

I was skeptical at first. I had seen this tried before. Several attempts had been made to replace the book but failed. But now, a public comfortable with technology and gadgets is increasingly keen on the e-reader, of which the most popular appears to be the Kindle.

Checking into a hotel, last month I briefly placed my book, a large 500 page paperback, onto the reception desk in order to retrieve my passport. “Oh, that’s a big book,” remarked the hotel manageress, walking past.

“Yes, but don’t quiz me on it as I am not far in,” I responded, taking her remark to be an admiring one, equating the books physical size with its intellectual heft.

I was swiftly disabused, “Gosh, I wouldn’t be bothered to carry a book like that around with me anymore. I would just put it on my Kindle.”

Apart from exposing my own arrogant assumptions, what this encounter illustrated was that I was rapidly falling behind the prevailing mood. Used to having people open conversation on the basis of interest in a books cover, I was unaware that people might now view the book as old-fashioned or inconvenient. But clearly this is increasingly the case.

Suitably chastened, I retired to a bar to ponder this development.

One of the things which I had previously felt about the book was that it was invulnerable to technological advance because it had nothing essentially wrong with it. Could you scribble in the margins of a computer book or could you read it as comfortably without straining your eyes? In both cases, until recently the answer was no. Only now you can read with ease on a specially developed screen and highlight sections of text, adding your thoughts should you wish.

Much as the internet removed the need to carry around a 24 volume set of encyclopedias, so the Kindle allows you to retain a blight airy clutter free library of books in your home, office, train, or car.

And it is not a poser’s tool. It is all about the solitary experience of reading, because no one can act in judgment of a grey box, can they. Suddenly the experience of reading has been regularized, even in public. The e-reader allows a train full of commuters, to read whatever they want without even the slightest hint of their reading habits. It is anonymous, and democratizing and offers freedom from judgment by others.

But you lose something as well.

For like it or not the experience of reading is not entirely solitary. Like the car it is directly empowering, but whether you drive a Pick-up or an SUV, a Ferrari or a Ford, the reality is that you are not entirely alone.

The car allows you to forget that you are in public, just as the e-reader or book does. Look at stationary traffic and you will see people picking their noses, singing along raucously to Bon Jovi, applying their make-up or on their phone. In other words, they have forgotten that there are no curtains to their bubble. They are momentarily alone.

Similarly with the book or Kindle, you are transported for a moment, tuned out of your surroundings.

But you return. And when you return you are more conscious of what your car says about you. You might imagine you chose a lime green colour for your car because it was a nice colour. But in reality you probably chose it because it was tasteful, fashionably racy or reflective of your personality.

The same is true of the walnut dashboard you spent extra on and the particular choice of alloy wheels. It is about your status in society, and how you want to present yourself to it.

And this is something that the e-reader has yet to adapt to.

One of my great pleasures is reading in a public bar. Here, surrounded by people you can be both alone and in company and dip in and out of society as you choose. The book in this instance is essentially a prop as well as a tool; its decorative cover revealing something about you.

 And it is emphatically not all about the reading. Some of the most rewarding conversations of my life have begun by inquisitive people opening, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help noticing what you were reading and…”

It is the book at its most versatile. And do not forget that, as a tool designed to facilitate communication, the book has just opened up an unexpected channel.

In contrast, I simply cannot imagine the same results from a conversation which opened, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you. But I couldn’t help noticing your kindle and was wondering, what the Hell are you actually reading?!”

So will the book be replaced? Has its usefulness as a tool finally become outdated, just as the telegraph, steam engine and dreadnought battleship have been replaced despite their seismic importance in their day?

Well, the first thing to note is that, my comments about the social function of the book could equally have been said of the cigarette only a few years ago. But people no longer smoke in bars and may simply put up with not having an interesting cover to allow people to judge their books be. People may simply find other props to deploy in bars or at bus stops.

But equally, not all the weaknesses of the book have been bridged. When I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance it was from my school library and had very clearly been dropped into water and then dried out by a previous lender. Books don’t react well to water but neither do e-readers, on the whole. And what about loss? I recently lost a book I was reading on a plane. It was very annoying but replaceable. I imagine you can back-up your e-reader, ensuring that you don’t loose your library. But you will still either need to be ensured for it or be prepared to, by a new e-reading device, turning a $10 loss into $100 loss.

And then there are the poor countries of the world. The book will survive in those places a lot longer than the developed world because these countries often value a product which has a long life span that can be mended with selotape, than something which will be out of date within the decade.

None of which is insurmountable. It may be that given time, the book will merely be regarded as the forerunner to the e-reader, just as the stone tablets of the Mesopotamians are the original forerunner to the book. Perhaps. But note that technology moves forward in different ways.

When I first saw The Muppets, it was on Television as a Christmas Movie. I next saw it on a VHS Video. I then watched it on a friends DVD. Now-a-days I suppose I would download it. If I had gone to see it in the cinema, I would have effectively been required to pay either to see it or for the equipment to do so five times in the last 30 years.

I still have the Muppets Christmas Annual; I was presented with that year. It cost a member of my family GBP1:25.

Which makes me think that there is an aspect to the book which will mean it will survive and flourish. In times of economic growth, people spend their money without care.

But the Earth swivels on its axis periodically, leading to altered weather conditions and droughts. Famines and pestilence follow and people are required to pull their recourses, adapt and overcome. And in a world where value is placed on the need to organize and ration society, pulling toward the greater good, the durability of the book, a technology which has lasted thousands of years, may well trump the throw-away convenience of the Kindle and its successors.

2 comments on “In Praise of Old Technologies: The Book

  1. Enjoyed reading! Several thought provoking ideas. Before the advent of printing on a mass scale, reading was a community experience when on person read and others surrounded her/him. Wonder how reading as a public/ private experience will change with e reading. You made me think.

    1. crabbitat says:


      Sorry to take a while getting back to you. I needed to think about this a wee bit.

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a bit more public performance reading.

      I once stumbled upon a live poetry evening in a bar in Birmingham. No one appeared to be interested which was a shame because the reader brought real drama to the verse. I had only heard of one of the poems and had thought it was a load of nonsence when i had read it, hut he totally changed my perception and understanding of it.

      It made me order another glass of wine, even if nobody else did.

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