The philosopher Francis Bacon, looking out at the future from his vantage point in the English 17th century, said that everyone should consider the effect of three inventions that were unknown in ancient times: Printing, gunpowder and the compass. "These three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world." Printing was the innovation Bacon put first, and the one that concerns us most in 2016. Printing made the modern era possible by disseminating the books that opened new ways of thinking and encouraged new human aspirations. Under the influence of printing, the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance and modern science all sprang to life. It was a revolution -- "the Unacknowledged Revolution," as one modern historian called it because (despite Bacon) most of the world didn't understand what was happening.
Today, on the other hand, we know the change that confronts us. The printing era shows signs of coming to an end. Bookstores everywhere are closing down because many people prefer to read books in digital form or perhaps prefer not to read. What is at stake? Literacy, literature and the culture of books, with its vast libraries and its flourishing (but often unprofitable) publishers. All of it is in danger.
This frightens many of us, not only because the structures of literacy are threatened but because books have been at the core of intellectual life for centuries and we cannot imagine what might replace them.
Many book-lovers will miss, most of all, the used-book stores, also called (at a higher level) antiquarian bookstores. For a few years they have been closing faster even than the stores dealing with new books. The American poet Charles Simic recently wrote an eloquent lament for this institution.
It was sometimes run by first-rate professionals who knew every book in the store. Other stores were grab-bags where significant books rested under tilting piles of volumes that would probably never find a buyer. But a book was never merely a product in that milieu: it was an artifact with a history, often abandoned by fashion, waiting to be rediscovered. As Simic said, visiting such stores was always an adventure into the unknown.
Books created a new kind of humanity by delivering precious packages of words in convenient form. The steadily increasing number of people with access to those packages could re-invent themselves as independent minds, without the help of priests, governments or even teachers. The age of personal autonomy was born, thanks to publishers, booksellers, printers and authors.
One kind of book, the novel, played a special role. Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet and essayist, said "the novel was perfected and strengthened as the art form to interest the reader in the fate of the individual."
The novel introduced into the world the idea of character as a subject for study. Humanity learned through novels to look at imaginary people from several points of view. That developed a new and more curious consciousness, with the individual human at its centre. Fiction became a way of considering, often in private, delicate aspects of religion, science and politics. Literature no longer consisted of soliloquies in ancient drama and psalms in the Bible. The novel opened psychological questions that have still not settled on final answers.
Books became everyone's teachers, above all in religion. From Martin Luther's time onwards, books gave millions of people the right to judge among belief systems. And as they were judging they learned the technique of sequential reading. It didn't come naturally to most humans, so books, especially novels, showed everyone who read them how to follow the logic of an argument or a narrative over time.
Paul Socken, now an emeritus professor of French at the University of Waterloo, discovered a few years ago that not many of his students spent any time reading out of their own interest. Surveying them, he found few read newspapers, in print or online; few read novels, short stories or poetry; few read history or any other kind of non-fiction. They were university students but they were nonreaders. Was this something new? Was this the future?
As a result, he edited one of the many current books on this subject, The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? (McGill-Queen's University Press). Under his editorship, 14 scholars, teachers and librarians discussed the fate of literature in the immediate future. There's enough for several symposiums in his book, and maybe the basis for a few wide-ranging graduate courses. In the last few years the history of the book has been studied more extensively in universities than at any time in the past.
My favourite among the essays Socken has gathered is the work of Michael Austin, provost of Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. He titles his piece, "Why I Read War and Peace on a Kindle (and Bought the Book When I Was Done)."
Like most of the book's contributors, he's concerned about the future but nevertheless confident that literature can survive the shift into Internet culture. Valuable writing remains valuable, whatever format it appears in.
Austin had tried War and Peace before but had fallen away after a few early chapters. This time, as an experiment, he read it on his e-book, carrying it everywhere with him for six weeks. He enjoyed it and learned from it but discovered at the end that there was something unsatisfactory in this transaction.
"It felt wrong not to own a book that had meant so much to me." He wanted to bring War and Peace into his own physical existence. He was a book owner, and had been since adolescence. Owning books had always been a part of his self-definition. He wanted the intimacy of ownership. So he purchased a handsome, thick paperback in the same translation.
Beneath his experience lies more than a trace of the magic that clings to physical books. His experience left me freshly aware of the mystical nature of cultural possessions. We may begin by analyzing them in logical terms, but we end by acknowledging that their meaning goes far deeper than logic.