- Books and Reading
The technology of printing with moveable type made its appearance nearly five hundred and sixty-five years ago, in Mainz, Germany. It is nice to imagine that it was Johannes Gutenberg who introduced the new process, presenting it to colleagues in a moment of great pride and satisfaction. More likely, it was a group of men—of whom Johannes was one—who pooled both resources and skills to develop the new printing technique. By the time they were done, business relationships had deteriorated, loans were being called in, and the exact history of the technology became obscured in litigation. What remained was a press. The printing revolution had arrived.
Today, five centuries after Gutenberg, electronic books are everywhere. In 2013, $1.3 billion dollars were spent on adult trade ebooks, downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other readers—nearly 30 percent of all book sales. The parallels between the fifteenth-century printing revolution and the age of the ebook have been drawn, refuted, and reconfigured over time. But the fact remains that we have at our disposal today more reading material than ever before, and much of it is digital—blogs, online periodicals, Facebook news feeds, and more.
Amid this exponential growth of text, scholarship has emerged that attempts to understand what it all means. Are physical books obsolete? Are libraries necessary? Are attention spans hopelessly waning? These are just the superficial questions, the knee-jerk queries of a society worried about [End Page 957] the effects of technology on our lives and our culture. Certainly books, as physical objects, are not going away, and the library—a locus for intellectual and social activity—will continue to exist. But scholars have begun to probe more deeply, offering nuanced discussions of technology’s impact on reading and textuality, on preservation and access.
In W. G. Sebald’s 2001 Austerlitz, the narrator talks about his visits to the Bibliothèque Nationale where he would pass entire days immersed in books,
in silent solidarity with the many others immersed in their intellectual labors, losing myself in the small print of the footnotes to the works I was reading, in the books I found mentioned in those notes, then in the footnotes to those books in their own turn, and so escaping from factual, scholarly accounts to the strangest of details, in a kind of continual regression expressed in the form of my own marginal remarks and glosses, which increasingly diverged into the most varied and impenetrable of ramifications.1
Sebald distills here the idealized intellectual pursuit. Driven by curiosity, a solitary reader falls headlong into a topic, moving from book to book in the library’s silent abundance. It’s all there: the vast collection of texts, the scholarly notes, and the marginalia that bind reader to text. And despite the scholar’s immersion in a clearly analog world, a physical library with physical books, Sebald’s narrator acts out the same behaviors we see in the digital age: solitary reading (perhaps on a device), clicking links, reading another page, and on down the rabbit hole, finding again that continual regression.
Even the twenty-first century’s abundance of information is nothing new. As Lisa Gitelman demonstrates in Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014; pp. 224, $22.95), it is more than just books that overwhelm us, it is documents. The number of individual documents generated since the late nineteenth century—forms, mimeographs, photocopies—is overwhelming, but Gitelman is drawn to this surfeit and has studied it carefully. She unpacks a history of documents, tracing their origins and tracking their influence on social change. The proliferation of forms is not typically attractive to people, and even the cover of Gitelman’s book—a photograph of packed shelves at the federal archives—gives one the sense of bureaucratic oppression. But her project finds breathing room above all this. Stepping back from the roomful of documents, she helps us understand where they originated...