“The End of Books,” c. 1992

To follow up with our earlier thoughts (The Guardian “Is this the end for books?”), for some historical perspective, let’s take a look at this similarly-titled piece from The New York Times, c. 1992: “The End of Books.”

I do love using the Way Back Machine that is the Internet to see how much things change … and how much they don’t. There’s something familiar about this early line from the article:

“[Y]ou will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries. Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.”

Sure sounds like the opening of something we’d read in this week’s New York Times, doesn’t it? The article makes reference to something called a floppy disk, as well as some pleasing references to Borges, Roland Barthes, and HyperCard — while the main focus on this particular article is hypertext fiction*. While the notion of nonlinear narratives and the initial excitement that hypertext fiction ushered in (“true freedom from the tyranny of the line is perceived as only really possible now at last with the advent of hypertext”, notes the article), its genealogy can certainly be traced to the likes of Laurence Stern and Italo Calvino (to name only a couple of favorites).

If you’re like me — although for your sake I kind of hope you’re not — you might be fascinated by the alternative perspective to traditional notions of narrative that the article discusses in the context of hypertext. To be fair, a lot of the questions raised within the article are purely academic, but keep in mind that the idea of hypertext in the 1990s was something which quite a few people saw as The Next Big Thing:

“You will often hear them proclaim, quite seriously, that there have been three great events in the history of literacy: the invention of writing, the invention of movable type and the invention of hypertext.”

All that is well and good, you might say. So what exactly is hypertext? Here is a sample of that postmodernishly fuzzy description:

“… it is still so radically new it is hard to be certain just what it is. No fixed center, for starters — and no edges either, no ends or boundaries. The traditional narrative time line vanishes into a geographical landscape or exitless maze, with beginnings, middles and ends being no longer part of the immediate display. Instead: branching options, menus, link markers and mapped networks. There are no hierarchies in these topless (and bottomless) networks, as paragraphs, chapters and other conventional text divisions are replaced by evenly empowered and equally ephemeral window-sized blocks of text and graphics — soon to be supplemented with sound, animation and film.”

While it’s quite easy (and sometimes fun) to dismiss outmoded types of thinking, there is something inherently valuable in learning to think about the ways earlier thinking echoes the questions we deal with in the here and now. The Text was being re-thought and re-imagined in light of a very early beginning transition from print to digital. Now, almost twenty years later, some of the same questions have taken a more definite shape, but that doesn’t mean the answers are necessarily more concrete. The questions of reading (or as they wonderfully put it: “Navigational procedures: how do you move around in infinity without getting lost?”) is still very much an open-ended and relevant question — see for example the recent interesting book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

* Good question: do people still know what hypertext fiction?


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

tyler shores cambridge

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