How long until the physical book is dead?

Boy wearing cap

Times have changed

Although the invention of printing is largely accredited to Gutenberg with his introduction of the metal plate technique in 1452, it really stemmed from the Chinese some 6 centuries before. However, even though Gutenberg (and then Caxton) started the ‘mass-production’ of books, it wasn’t until the rapid rise of literacy during the Victorian era (in 1840 over 30% of grooms and 50% of brides were literate compared to well over 95% by the turn of the century) had taken effect, that the possession of books became truly commonplace.

It’s now just over a century since then and we’re contemplating scrapping physical books entirely. E-book sales are now significantly exceeding those of printed books by varyingly accredited factors (this depends upon your point of view) but there’s no doubt that one is on the up and the other is on the way out. A simple tablet computer can hold tens of thousands of books, be searchable, updatable, capable of remembering where you are in each book, allow you to scribble notes and highlight text at your will. Not only that, e-books are cheaper and immediate. A few seconds after placing your order, you can be perusing its virtual pages.

No doubt there is a book-buying generation who won’t make the transition but they’re the same generation with failing eyesight and a demographic trend towards the final 3 letters one encounters in this world, RIP. Even allowing for POD (Print On Demand) books, there must be a point in the not too distant future where possessing a physical book will be as rare as it was half a millennium previously.

Does anyone miss carbon paper?

Pencil sharpener

A blast from the past

When we think about revolutions in writing, we tend to think about the act of writing itself, that is, the shift from forming letters on a page, to tapping keys and having the letters appear on a screen. It’s a huge difference, of course, and not all positive.

There’s something immensely cosy and romantic about the idea of scratching away with a nib pen by the light of a candle; at least I think so. There’s also some part of the ability to spell which dwells in the hand: it’s easier to spell a word correctly when you drift from one letter to the next in classic joined-up writing.

And yet the speed! The facility for correcting mistakes! We’ve come so far in these departments.

But we tend to overlook what I consider an even more dramatic change: in methods of duplicating.

It started with armies of scribes sitting with bowed heads, writing away with aching wrists as they listening to a text being read out, and woe betide them if they fell behind due to having to erase a mistake with pumice stone.

Then we had printing (a revolution in itself, that), then carbon copies (which are still going, see the BBC article and video), photocopying, scanning, and simplest of all, just pressing the button ‘Copy’ followed by ‘Paste’ to duplicate a document on the same electronic device or another electronic device.

It’s almost too easy. In fact it’s so much too easy that there’s a whole industry in stealing people’s intellectual property.

There’s something to be said for old, safe techniques like making carbon copies, whether it be for restaurant orders, or credit card numbers, or parking tickets. You can keep track of all the copies if you want to, and you don’t get the feeling that you’ve posted your literary gems through a hole into the winds of the universe.

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