Let’s hon­our cul­tural pos­ses­sions — there is magic in print books, writes Robert Ful­ford.

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The philoso­pher Fran­cis Ba­con, look­ing out at the fu­ture from his van­tage point in the English 17th cen­tury, said 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 U.S. poet Charles Simic re­cently wrote an elo­quent lament for this in­sti­tu­tion.

It was some­times run by firstrate 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 rein­vent 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 on­ward, 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 non-read­ers. 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 widerang­ing 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, Kan. 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.


Books have been at the core of in­tel­lec­tual life for cen­turies, and signs point­ing to the end of the print era frighten book lovers be­cause we can­not imag­ine what might re­place them, Robert Ful­ford writes.

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