The Decline and Aftermath of the Printed Word


"And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books." (Rev. 20:12)



Picture by Darrell Francis, Richmond '07
Picture by Darrell Francis, Richmond '07
Over the past centuries, we have created a culture that deifies the printed book. As children, we are told to value books over action figures and video games. As students, the image of the crowded library stacks becomes the symbol of scholarship and academic success. As adults, books are exalted as sources of personal growth and enlightenment. Indeed, Henry David Thoreau accurately summarizes our culture's attitude towards books when he comments that "Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations," (Walden 97).

Thoreau's sentiments, however, seem to be incongruous with the current state of the printed book. Today, conventional reading is in a decline. As a CBS report by Hillel Italie from 2004 states, "Only 47 percent of American adults read "literature" (poems, plays, narrative fiction) in 2002, a drop of 7 points from a decade earlier. Those reading any book at all in 2002 fell to 57 percent, down from 61 percent." Furthermore, the book industry itself is under constant pressure by both advancing technologies and new consumer trends to change their publishing strategies in order to survive. As Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House and the founder of both the New York Times Review of Books and On-Demand Books, writes that "The transformation that awaits writers and publishers today is much different and will have far greater consequences. It arises not from cultural despair and aesthetic rebellion but from new technologies whose cultural influences promises to be no less revolutionary than the introduction of movable type..." (Epstein 3). In the face of today's ever advancing technology, it seems foolish to think that the printed word would continue to exist as it has for centuries past.

What, then, does the future hold for literature and storytelling? Personally, I am disinclined to agree with Dana Giola and the NEA's assessment of the current reading trend as a crisis. While the emergence of new media uncontroversially causes a decline in national reading statistics, I do not view such an occurrence as a degeneration of the American populace. Instead, I choose to view these media as a natural evolution out of traditional literature, much like how the motion picture grew out of the black and white still photograph. I find Epstein's view on emerging technology to be of the same as my own. He comments that "The book business as I have known is already obsolete, but the defining human art of storytelling will survive the evolution of cultures and their institutions as it always has. New technologies change the world but they do not erase the past or alter the genome," (Epstein xii). I, too, have absolute faith in the ability of storytelling and literature to survive the storm of new technology. The real question, instead, is how they will evolve in the world that succeeds the printed word.

Caledon E-Book Public Library, Mayfair Branch
Caledon E-Book Public Library, Mayfair Branch
In this wiki, I will explore several technologies that may prove to be the future of both book printing and of general storytelling. Regarding the book industry, I find the both e-books and express print presses compelling. While e-book and e-book reader technology provides the potential for instantaneous book distribution and mobile collections (see Amazon's Kindle for a truly revolutionary reader), On Demand Books' Espresso Book Machine may provide a cheap and swift method of delivering traditional bound books without the hassle of warehouse storage or transportation. Secondly, I will explore the importation of libraries into Second Life, focusing on their implementation into the Independent State of Caledon simulation by Sir JJ Drinkwater. Though they no nothing a simply hyperlink could not do, the libraries of Caledon have become cultural and social centers for the local residents. What is it about these libraries that allow them to penetrate into the world of the insubstantial, into the grid of Second Life?

I am no futurist. Anything you read here is not a claim by me of what will most likely happen. Instead, I hope that my work here will introduce you to the technologies and innovations that have excited me about the dawn of this new age of storytelling.

Works Cited:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.

Epstein, Jason. Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Italie, Hillel. "Huge Decline in Book Reading: Report Blames Electronic Media for Drop in Number of Book-Lovers." CBS News. 8 Jul. 2004. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/07/08/national/main628194.shtml.

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