Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Demise of the Book (1894)

Another light-hearted post from the work blog -- put up on a Friday, the traditional day for less serious stuff:

Imagine yourself in 1894. Would it be reasonable then to predict the demise of the printed book? In an article that appeared in Scribner's Magazine that year, Octave Uzanne did just that.

Here's a citation: The End of Books by Octave Uzanne, Illustrations by A. Robida, Scribner's Magazine, Vol. XVI, No. 2. August, 1894, pp. 220-231.

For a little background and brief summary of the article see Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 2009, a radio program produced by the University of Houston College of Engineering.

Some highlights of the Scribner's article:

At a late-night dinner party, the protagonist, Arthur Blackcross, tells his listeners: "reading, as we practise it today, soon brings on great weariness; for not only does it require of the brain a sustained attention which consumes a large proportion of the cerebral phosphates, but it also forces our bodies into various fatiguing attitudes. Our eyes are made to see and reflect the beauties of nature, and not to wear themselves out in the reading of texts."

Basing his ideas on the miniaturization of the bulky phonographs of his day, he predicts that the printed book, he says, will die, and, after some technical advances have been achieved, "the author will become his own publisher."

He goes on:

"Libraries will be transformed into phonographotecks, or rather, phonostereoteks."

"Fortunate hearers will experience the ineffable delight of reconciling hygiene with instruction; of nourishing their minds while exercising their muscles; for there will be pocket phono-opera-graphs, for use during excursions among Alpine mountains or in the canyons of the Colorado."

Working people and the poor "may intoxicate themselves on literature as on pure water, and as cheaply, too, for there will then be fountains of literature in the streets as there are now hydrants."

With broadcasting or any form of electronic transmission had not yet been foreseen, Blackcross predicts transmission by: "infinite number of small tubes connected with [an author's] auditory shop, by means of which his works may be wafted through the open windows to the ears of such lodgers as may desire amusement in a moment of leisure, or cheer in an hour of solitude."

The same sort of technology will enable dissemination on mass transit and thereby "cause travellers to forget the weariness of the way while leaving their eyes free to admire the landscapes through which they are passing."

All will not be simply text: "illustrations will be abundant and realistic enough to satisfy the most exacting. You perhaps forget the great discovery of to-morrow, that which is soon to amaze us all; I mean the Kinetograph of Thomas Edison, of which I was so happy as to see the first trial at Orange Park, New Jersey, during a recent visit to the great electrician."

He sums up: "books will be forsaken by all the dwellers upon this globe, and printing will absolutely pass out of use except for the service it may still be able to render to commerce and private relations; and even there the writing-machine, by that time fully developed, will probably suffice for all needs."

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