Philosophical Musings: “The Death of the Book”

From the Los Angles Review of Books, “The Death of the Book” is a provocative, philosophical reflection on the history of our morbid (ha) curiosity with the ‘death of the book.’ —

“Books were once such handsome things. Suddenly they seem clunky, heavy, almost fleshy in their gross materiality. Their pages grow brittle. Their ink fades. Their spines collapse. They are so pitiful, they might as well be human.”

It’s funny how the arguments about the physicality of paper and ink books always comes down to two lines of thinking — a) that this sort of book technology is the most permanent-seeming, and historically durable form of information storage we’ve yet devised; or b) that books are fragile things; we relate to them because of their transience, and they show their age.

And then, there was the Internet. This-new-medium-will-kill-that-old-medium:

“It proved a sneaky and seductive monster. Straight to our offices and living rooms, the web delivered chicken recipes, weather forecasts, pornography, the cutest kitten videos the world had ever seen. But while we were distracted by these glittering gifts, the internet conspired to snare our friend the book, to smother it.”

But, before the Age of the Internet, we had Marshall McLuhan and The Gutenberg Galaxy. Technology (books are after all, technology) either gives a certain form and shape to consciousness, or it limits and shrinks it, depending on which side of the argument you fall upon —

“In 1962, Marshall McLuhan had published an almost spookily prescient book titled The Gutenberg Galaxy. It was, among other things, an extended critique of the culture of print. Technology shapes our consciousness, McLuhan argued, and the development of the printed book in the mid-fifteenth century had inaugurated a reorientation of human experience towards the visual, the regimented, the uniform and instrumental. Language, which had once been a wild, uncontainable affair between the oral and aural (think whisper, shout, and song, the playful market-square dynamism of dialect and argot) was silenced, flattened, squeezed into lines evenly arrayed across the rectilinear space between the margins. Spellings were standardized, vernaculars frozen into national languages policed by strict academies. Print, for McLuhan, was the driver behind all that we now recognize as modern. Through it nationalisms arose, and other horrors: capitalism, individualism, alienation. Time itself was emptied out — reduced, like the words on each page, to a linear sequence of homogeneous moments. Print had stolen something. Books had shrunk us.”

Derrida thinks about The Book as something else: as a sort of monolithic metaphor for how we shape our understandings of the world. And perhaps this is a natural extension of the human relationship with technology; technology is tool, an externalized version of the mind’s workings. The more that thought and technology are intertwined, the more it seems as if technology becomes a convenient metaphor — it always sounds a little odd and yet at the same time perfectly sensible when someone likens the mind to a computer.

“Jacques Derrida took up the theme of “the end of the book” in Of Grammatology … the “civilization of the book,” for Derrida, meant more than the era of moveable type. It preceded Gutenberg, and even the medieval rationalists who wrote of “the book of nature” and via that metaphor understood the material world as revelation analogous to scripture. The book for Derrida stood in for an entire metaphysics that reached back through all of Western thought: a conception of existence as a text that could be deciphered, a text with a stable meaning lodged somewhere outside of language. “The idea of the book is the idea of a totality,” he wrote. “It is the encyclopedic protection of theology and of logocentrism against the disruption of writing, against its aphoristic energy and … against difference in general.” Those, in case you couldn’t tell, are fighting words.”

Here’s something to wonder about: what exactly does that phrase mean, ‘the death of the book?’ Does that mean ‘the death of the book’ in a ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it’ sense? That the book might in the future be something different from what we now recognize to be a book? And how would we know that change, and could we be aware of the change while it’s happening? And if so, so what? Things change. Change isn’t itself a negative occurrence:

“But what could it mean for the book to die? Which sort of book? And what variety of death? What if the book had only ever lived by dying? “

What we mean by all of this ‘death of the book’ talk, then is a sort of reaction to change: “Call it bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object.”

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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