The Shallows by Nicholas Carr 2011

published by Norton & Co., New York 2011

 

The Shallows is about the Internet's intellectual and cultural consequences. In reviewing the history of how there have been previous social and technological changes that some thought would be the end of books Carr mentions that many observers thought "the burgeoning popularity of newspapers" in the early years of the nineteenth century would make books obsolete.

That didn't happen so that by the end of the nineteenth century

"books were still around, living happily beside newspapers. But a new threat to their existence had already emerged: Thomas Edison's phonograph. It seemed obvious, at least to the intelligentsia, that people would soon be listening to literature rather than reading it. In an 1889 essay in the Atlantic Monthly, Philip Hubert predicted that "many books and stories may not see the light of print at all; they will go into the hands of their readers, or hearers rather, as phonograms." The phonograph, which at the time could record sounds as well as play them, also "promises to far outstrip the typewriter" as a tool for composing prose, he wrote. That same year, the futurist Edward Bellamy suggested, in a Harper's article, that people would come to read "with the eyes shut." They would carry around a tiny audio player, called an "indispensable," which would contain all their books, newspapers, and magazines. Mothers, wrote Bellamy, would no longer have "to make themselves hoarse telling the children stories on rainy days to keep them out of mischief." The kids would all have their own indispensables.

Five years later, Scribner's Magazine delivered the seeming coup de grâce to the codex, publishing an article titled "The End of Books" by Octave Uzanne, an eminent French author and publisher. "What is my view of the destiny of books, my dear friends?" he wrote. "I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg's invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products." Printing, a "somewhat antiquated process" that for centuries "has reigned despotically over the mind of man," would be replaced by "phonography," and libraries would be turned into "phonographotecks." We would see a return of "the art of utterance," as narrators took the place of writers. "The ladies," Uzanne concluded, "will no longer say in speaking of a successful author, 'What a charming writer!' All shuddering with emotion, they will sigh, "Ah, how this "teller's" voice thrills you, charms you, moves you."

The book survived the phonograph as it had the newspaper. Listening didn't replace reading. Edison's invention came to be used mainly for playing music rather than declaiming poetry and prose. During the twentieth century, book reading would withstand a fresh onslaught of seemingly mortal threats: moviegoing, radio listening, TV viewing...While physical books may be on the road to obsolescence, the road will almost certainly be a long and winding one. Yet the continued existence of the codex, though it may provide some cheer to bibliophiles, doesn't change the fact that books and book reading, at least as we've defined those things in the past, are in their cultural twilight.

The Shallows, pp109-110