Week 11: The Death of the Book

If I could go back in time and tell the people of an era one really important thing about the future of books and reading, it would simply be that books are not going to die. With this message, I could travel back to a variety of different time periods, because there have been many instances of moral panics over “the death of the book” (i.e. Théophile Gautier in 1835 France; Marshall McLuhan circa 1966).

The intent behind this message would primarily be to allay these poor book lovers’ fears regarding the death of the book. Think of the time and energy that could have been saved and redirected into more creative writing endeavours if people hadn’t fixated on arguing over this issue (not to say that what people wrote about the matter in all of these different periods is not interesting in and of itself!). I wish I could tell them that books will change, and while some will embrace this change, books as they were known in times past will continue to flourish, and people will continue to read them. If they had known this, perhaps more people would have been encouraged to write books, to write more books, or to write different books.

As we have learned in this course, print books are not going to die, and e-books are not going to take over. Even if they did, works would still get read, even if the format might change slightly (or drastically). In any case, other technologies such as newspaper, radio, or TV will not replace books and reading: the need for books is strong and the love for them is ever-present.

2 thoughts on “Week 11: The Death of the Book”

  1. Steph,

    It wasn’t until just now that I noticed we have a similar post – we share an article! I so agree with all of your points. Your comment that the book will still exist, albeit perhaps in a different form is just like what Umberto Eco was saying in a quote on my post – this makes me think, maybe the ‘book’ is a far more broad term than we allow, in the sense of how McKenzie uses the ‘text’. The codex is perhaps its most enduring manifestation, but maybe in the future we will still have ‘books’ that look radically different and yet function in similar ways. What is the experience then of interacting with a ‘book’, and does it always have to look the same?

    Something that strikes me the most about looking back is that in most cases, one technology never supersedes another entirely. Instead, they enter into a shared environment and are used for different ends. Like Paul Duguid said in our first reading, “futorologists do have a habit of announcing both deaths and births prematurely” (1996, 63). Similar to Eco’s point that nothing ‘does a spoon better than a spoon’, Duguid seems to also suggest that books will prevail due mostly in part to their usefulness: “Pencil and hinge survive technological cuts on the strength of their deep social resourcefulness. And for similar reasons, we may find that the simple hinged book will prove as enduring” (1996, 64). Going back to his discussion about supersession I was reminded of his point, “not to permit the burial of what yet has useful life” (Duguid, 1996, 90). I wonder if all of our quickness to jump on calling the ‘death of the book’ is indicative of some greater societal unrest – almost as if to call it first, we can be spared some of the pain. But I agree with Duguid that to jump the gun like this leaves us in a rather precarious place.

    Duguid, Paul. (1996). Material matters: The past and futurology of the book. In The future of the book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, (pp.63-101). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

  2. Hi Marlena,

    Thanks for your comment. I read your post and completely agree with your point about the uncertain future of libraries, but that the book itself will be just fine. This discussion has called something to mind for me. Not too long ago my mother-in-law made quite the statement at the dinner table: she thinks that just as our children will grow up in ignorance of what a VHS tape is, our grandchildren will grow up not knowing what a traditional codex book is. While there are some obvious problems with this comparison given that VHS tapes were only introduced in the 70s, and the codex book has been around for hundreds of years, I found myself feeling quite defensive. What is it about our nature that makes us feel so emotionally tied (or not tied, as the case may be) to books?

    I think it may have to do with the fact that we connect to the content of books on an emotional level: a good book is like a friend. Even though we are connecting to the words, ideas, characters, etc. in a book, our brains see the physical pages and identify with those. Therefore when people talk about the death of the book, book-lovers feel threatened that the physical manifestation of the work (and by association the work itself) may be in danger.


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