Is the importance of books a short interlude in our history?

I’m a bit jaded. I’ve seen technologies come and go, and after having invested time and effort into them I have lived to see most of them fade away. This have meant I’m not too keen on ‘new’ things. Not that I’m not interested, or curious. But most things I have seen before.

The difference now is, of course, there’s a critical mass. Places like LinkedIn and Facebook, services like Yammer and Twitter – they only grow important and inevitable if enough people uses them. And in western society of today, enough people have made the transition into the digital age to make those places viable.

The internet is perceived as a fast medium. Books is a slow medium, and TV is in between. Are books on the loosing end of this equation? Will books loose the importance they have had in conveying knowledge and ideas, historically?

These are some of my thoughts –

As long as people have been able to write written documents have been of some import. Used for to keep count of things, but also for poetry and political diatribe (a favourite in most ‘civilized’ societies, it seems!) and to document knowledge and theories. But prior to the advent of the printing press, books where both written and bound by hand, and very much one off. Rich people paid to have copies made, and the copies varies between them – bits and pieces shorn off or added so to ring true to current ideas and policies. Despite this books made a difference. Through books concepts of arithmetic and medicine got introduced to western Europe. Books, in a more conceptual way, because they are often scrolls, also was used to shape history. Hagiographies and biographies was used to reshape past events, and as those documents are what survived our sources are skewed. I’d argue that this was the intent, and in many ways they have proved successful.

Anyway, in more recent times books have had some impact. Think of The origin of the Species, which have affected us whether we think the earth is 4000 years old or if we think we and the world around us have evolved for millennia. There are, of course, more recent examples. This is not the place to name them – the list is huge and contains different books depending on culture and geography.

Today fewer and fewer read. The publishing houses are, on an international level, consolidating, meaning a handful of people decide what will get printed or not (Sweden, on the contrary, have a lot of small independent publishers). Ideas are conveyed via the internet and TV, and are so many most of us have no means of sorting or organizing the stuff in anything resembling a coherent picture. Some may argue that we are leaving the printed word for a more oral/visual culture.

If I may I’d say that if so we are only returning to what we left when we started to commit ink to paper (or papyrus or whatever). Humankind survived through millennia before we started to make markings more linguistically coherent than cave paintings.

Are we going backwards? Or are we leaving an intermediate state, to return to a way of communicating more consistent with ourselves as human beings?

I for one think books will continue to be important. In some contexts not HOW MANY but WHO and WHAT are the important factors. Books for pure entertainment? That will, regrettably, be a diminishing niche. Or so I think.

Thanks to my friends at The Green Dragon, and especially to JPB who brought this up (“Is the age of “writers shaping culture” over?”) (even if it wasn’t originally intended to take the turn it did. But that’s the way with discussions, so only to be expected!)


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