"He not busy being born is busy dying"

I found myself quoting that great Bob Dylan line the other day on a mailing list for those dealing with the changes sweeping through the publishing industry. Michael Coffey from Publisher’s Weekly wrote an eloquent and moving lament that expresses the fear of many that the book might be losing its pre-eminent position in the cultural canon. He wrote:

I think one of the perspectives little addressed in this terrific
thread is that of the impact disappearing books might have on the
writer—not the librarian, bookseller, or reader–but the creative
class for whom leaving behind, in their stead, on bookshelves or
libraries of in the collections of their families, a discrete object
that is their creation, [is] a testament to the occcasion of their
having created something out of nothing. This creation of an artifact
might, I would propose, have played an enormous part in our cultural
production over the centuries. To know that there, in a little
dimensional space somewhere are one’s singular compositions– bound
and protected (to some extent) and real–has power. If the book
disappears to a degree that allows us to say, “hey, hasn’t the book
disappeared?–how will culturual production change? Will knowing your
work is in code in some nondimensional space, dark and immaterial
unless accessed by a curious soul, be enough to replace that other

Much as I sympathize with Michael’s concern – I love books, make my living publishing them, and live surrounded by them as my constant companions – and despite loving the way he framed the question, I had to take issue with the idea that if books became less important as artifacts and carriers of culture, writers would stop writing:

Given that cultural production is continuing unabated on blogs and YouTube, I don’t think we need to worry about it “disappearing” but you’re right that it will likely change. But who says that the book has ever been the ideal unit of self-expression, or the best tool for expression of ideas?

Michael replied:

I do think centuries of cultures have held that belief–perhaps not that it was the ideal unit, but the best we had. Now, of course, the issue of ease of access has become paramount, and the traditional book has slipped a bit further back from the “ideal.” But it reigned supreme for a long time for good reasons, and its status as an object was part of it. I guess it is our privilege to see how this may work itself out…

Michael makes a really good point, that as we move from books to ebooks, and to other forms of writing – on the web, for mobile devices, and even on evanescent media like mailing lists and twitter – the way we express ourselves will also change. But of course, this is not new. The “modern novel” is only a few hundred years old; poetry was once primarily a spoken art and written down only after the fact. You have only to read an eighteenth century book to realize how much the form has evolved even during the tenure of the printed and bound book. I responded:

Well, for many centuries, the painting played that role in visual arts. It was superseded (for many purposes) by photography. Painting still is practiced, but it’s a niche art. However, visual arts are practiced more widely than ever before, and are appreciated more widely, by more people. Something is lost, but something is gained.

Worth reflecting on: the opening chapters of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) are a lament to the loss of visual literacy – the ability to read the stories told in the sculpture on the walls of a Cathedral – as a result of the rise of reading.

We might also lament the loss of the prodigious feats of memory that were common before literacy was widespread, or the loss of physical skills (horseback riding, shooting, fencing, needlepoint, piano playing) that were once common before the rise of the technologies that made them hobbies rather than necessities.

A great line from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “He knew then that history is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do.” Eventually, we all get out of step with the world as the habits of our youth are replaced by the habits of the next generation’s youth.

P.S. Another great novel dealing with this effect is Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Just as the motorcar ended the days of the horse (the frame of that story), new forms of writing and reading may be ending the days of the modern book. This is a good thing, overall, if we embrace it. We can be vaudeville players sneering at the new moving pictures, or we can go west and become part of the new Hollywood.

Transitions are tough on old industries. But remember that part of why they are tough is that something new is being born. Bob Dylan: “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

Going back to check my facts, I find that it is not an early chapter of Notre Dame de Paris, but later in the book, in a chapter entitled One Shall Destroy The Other, that Victor Hugo explores the relationship of the cathedral and the book:

This thought is full of the foreboding that one power is about to be succeeded by another. “One shall destroy the other;” in other words, the Press shall overthrow the Church.

But underlying this thought — the first and simplest, it is true — there is…the presentiment not merely of the priest, but that of the scholar, the artist; the presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression ; that the leading idea of each generation would not always be inscribed in the same fashion, with the same material; that the book of stone, so solid and durable, was about to give place to another, still more substantial and durable, — the book of paper. Beneath the archdeacon’s statement, his vague formula, there was another, deeper significance; the thought that one art shall dethrone another, — Printing shall ‘overthrow Architecture.

It’s a brilliant chapter, full of humanity and wisdom. Anyone who is afraid of change, and needs context to accept it, should read it.

As authors and publishers explore the new world of online reading and writing, we need to do more than just translate print books to an electronic screen. We have a future to invent! And the time is now. At the just-concluded Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in Frankfurt, Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan drove home the urgency with which publishers need to engage with the grand experiment:

“The new thing is never as good as the old thing, at least right now. Soon, the new thing will be better than the old will be. But if you wait until then it’s going to be too late.”

I have a feeling that this is a lesson not just for publishers, but for our entire culture, as many of the things we’ve taken for granted begin to shift, either because of new inventions, or because of failures of existing systems.

“He not busy being born is busy dying.”