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The Destruction of the Book

From: Book History
Volume 1, 1998
pp. 1-10 | 10.1353/bh.1998.0003

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Book History 1.1 (1998) 1-10

Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than one Way of coming into the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more.

--Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub


It is curious to observe how the rapid development in recent years of the academic study of the book has coincided with the even more rapid development of electronic technology, upon whose aid much current work in this field so obviously depends. There is something paradoxical perhaps in the fact that the study of the book is sustained so largely through a medium that, if some recent predictions are to be trusted, threatens to supersede it. That paradox is clearly evident at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, for example, where Jerome McGann at his IBM RS-6000 workstation moves at amazing speed through the multiple texts of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with no actual books anywhere in sight; scrutinizing, systematizing the less advanced technology of Gutenberg, but simultaneously perhaps implying and enforcing its fundamental obsolescence.

Umberto Eco recalls how Victor Hugo's priest Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame compares a book with his cathedral, pronouncing the fateful words, "Ceci tuera cela." "This will kill that": the book with its alphabetical system will kill the cathedral with its system of visual images. By the 1960s, Eco notes, this prediction was to be reversed: Marshall McLuhan's comparison of a Manhattan discotheque with his own book The Gutenberg Galaxy bore the same message, now angled in a contrary direction. "Ceci tuera cela": the images of the global village, in McLuhan's view, would supersede and destroy the printed page. If the coming of the discos did not quite lead to the mass closure of the bookstores, will the advent of electronic technology finally do the trick? As Robin Alston has recently reminded us, however, there are still many tricks that electronic technology is quite incapable of performing; still many structural, practical, and interpretative problems embedded in the new systems; still many radical and continuing limitations on the supposed electronic management of knowledge. Like the death of the author, the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps the idea is best regarded as kind of a rhetorical trope, apocalyptic yet bantering, whose origins can be traced to literature written over a millennium before the invention of movable type and the coming of the printed book. The limitations and excitements of this figure should be familiar enough to Umberto Eco, whose most famous narrative culminates, after all, in the destruction of a library.

I shall briefly reflect on the significance of this figure and on some of the ways it has been deployed by writers of the past, as they contemplate with varying degrees of apprehension or pleasure (depending chiefly on whether the object is their own or someone else's) the destruction of the book.


Here is an entry from Byron's Ravenna diary for 4 January 1821:

I was out of spirits -- read the papers, thought what fame was, on reading, in a case of murder, that "Mr Wych, grocer, at Tunbridge, sold some bacon, flour, cheese, and, it is believed, some plums, to some gipsy woman accused. He had on his counter (I quote faithfully) a book, the Life of Pamela, which he was tearing for waste paper, &c. &c. In the cheese was found, &c., and a leaf of Pamela wrapt round the bacon." What would Richardson, the vainest and luckiest of living authors (i.e. while alive)--he who, with Aaron Hill, used to prophesy and chuckle over the presumed fall of Fielding (the prose Homer of human nature) and of Pope (the most beautiful of poets)--what would he have said, could he have traced his pages from their place on the French prince's toilets (see Boswell's Johnson) to the grocer's counter and the gipsy-murderess's bacon!!!

What would he have said?

Byron's amusement derives in part from a central assumption of Richardson's novel, that manuscripts, like maidenheads, will be providentially preserved and will eventually...

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