The Shift in Literature

I have a love-hate relationship with e-books.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I hate them because I love paper books.  I love bookshops, which have been chased out of my area by e-books; where we used to have several large chains in the area, we now have one small Books-A-Million outlet in a mall.  I love to thumb the pages and write notes in the margins.  I love used books where I can find the notes left by previous owners.  I love bookmarks: playing cards and newspaper articles and torn bits of paper.  I love the feeling of being surrounded by books, piled up or on a shelf or whatever; they make me comfortable.  I love my well-read books, held together with glue and tape and the occasionally bit of bubble gum.

And I hate e-book copyrights.  I hate that publishers are suddenly terrified of libraries and are trying to make the market as profitable as they possibly can– not that I’d expect any different.  I hate the way the monetary side of the market is handled.

But I love e-books too.  I love that I don’t have to worry about book space in my suitcases any more. I love how freely I can find old literature, which makes up 90% of what I read: the works of Shakespeare and Sun Tzu are now completely free.  I love how easy they are to distribute, how self-published writers can now handle distribution on their own.  I love that I can pack an entire library into a micro-SD card (relevant XKCD).  I love that I can now flip through Ender’s Game on my phone when I’m bored and forgot to bring a book.

And I know I’m not alone out there. When the Kindle was first released, these criticisms were everywhere.  Sure, e-books have actually been around for a while: Bob Brown introduced the concept back in the 1930’s when “talkies” were first coming out.  He suggested the wonderful name “Readies”, which I’m sincerely sad did not catch on.  Wikipedia dates the first e-book reader back as early as the 40’s. Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971, and the Baen Free Library has been around since the 90’s.

But e-books only really caught on recently.  Even though texts have been digitized for years, they were difficult to read in that format. You either read them on your computer or you printed them out, which either consumed ink or caused eyestrain.  When the Kindle came out as the first well-marketed e-book reader the market just went nuts.  Publishers jumped on the chance immediately.

The Kindle was released only seven years ago. I was in high school.  People who don’t remember a world without e-books haven’t even hit the double digits yet.  Yet over 50% of Americans have e-readers now.  Books are more widely available to the public than ever before, easier to keep and manage, easier to publish.

This massive shift in the dynamic of literature is completely unprecedented, right?

Well, no. It’s not.  This is actually not new at all.


Damn you, Gutenburg!

Contrary to popular belief, there was such a thing as printing before Gutenberg’s press.  It was invented in China at the turn of the millennium.  But Gutenberg’s press brought the invention to Europe in such an amazing boom that it has its own separate Wikipedia page.  Before that, manuscripts were handwritten. It was received about as well as you’d expect any new technology to be received.

Johannes Trimethius of 1462-1516  lauded the handwritten text as more permanent (the ink and parchments were both better-quality), as good for the soul, as a way to get in touch with god.  No exercise was as holy as the “devotion to writing of the sacred texts”.  There’s a great article on Wondermark about this work (citing this work):

He does spend some time talking about practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used (he even advocates the hand-copying of “useful” printed works for their preservation); there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly. All perfectly functional reasons considering the circumstances of the time.

Wondermark calls him a “curmudgeon” (as the illustrated jocularity has a right to do), but I’m not sure I agree with that.  Illuminated manuscripts are incredible.  They’re beautiful, meditative.  Torah scribes still continue that tradition today, but for the most part that dedication to art in literature has been completely lost. Our modern idea of a big, beautiful book is actually what a newfangled printed book was back in Trimethius’ time: a nice binding with printed works and maybe some woodcut illustrations.

My Thursday post this week is going to be an essay I wrote a few years ago called Farewell to Leaves, which deals in a far more artsy way with the losses we suffered when we gave up illuminated manuscripts.   Surely this was an unprecedented shift, wasn’t it? Surely this was something completely unheard of?

Actually, no.  And don’t call me Shirley.


Damn you, Phonecians!

I’m sure most of you are familiar with a little guy called Homer.  He’s the attributed author of The Illiad and The Odyssey, and in Ancient Greece he was a hero.  That’s one step down from being a god.  In fact, it’s so close that whether or not he actually existed has come into question: the Greeks had a habit of deifying their heroes, and when you’ve got a pantheon that big it’s sometimes hard to keep track.

Whether or not he existed, Homer’s works were the basis of education back in Ancient Greece.  You were not an educated man unless you had studied those epics: not only did they save the stories, but hidden inside them were theology, ethics, history, geography.  These epics were so good at their job that in 1868, Heinrich Schliemann used them to find the ruins of Troy, believing that there was a little truth behind the myth.  While Schliemann’s archaeology wasn’t the most accurate or ethical in practice, the fact that he could track down the ruins based on the Iliad alone speaks volumes about those works.

So here’s the kicker: before the Iliad and the Odyssey, Greece was completely and utterly illiterate.

That’s right.  No, I’m not talking about horrendous literacy rates.  They literally did not have a writing system.  Just before the writing of the two great epics, Greece adopted an alphabet from the Phonecians.  This brought them out of a period of about 800 years that is commonly known as the Greek Dark Ages.  (Note: the civilisations that preceded this period did have a writing system, but they were lost for that age; some are still lost today.)

The appearance of Homer just as the writing system appears can tell us something huge: writing replaced something else.  The poems were likely part of an intense and well-kept oral tradition.  When writing appeared, it exploded into the amazing literary tradition that we know so well.  And I’m not just talking about Greece: the writing we know today was heavily influenced by that one fortunate shift in storytelling. And again, it came at a price.

Oral tradition is a method of relaying information that relies solely on human memory.  This can be flawed for a number of reasons: the human memory is imperfect, and people have a habit of changing information based on what information they want to spread.  However, oral tradition also requires great mental training and human interaction. When you memorize Homer, you don’t need to look anything up: the entire epic is in your mind, word for word.  Poets took advantage of that: when you look at oral epics from Europe during their Dark Ages, you often find odd lists of local herbs or ships or other weird bits of information stored away.  These were the textbooks of oral tradition, a way of storing that information for anyone who learned the story.

This too was not unprecedented.  Back in ancient history, the discovery and loss of writing was a common thing: there’s a reason we have so many different written languages in the world.


Okay, but we’re still special, right?

Yes.  We’re still special.  The further back you go, the more localized these shifts in literature become: even the printing press took a good 450 years to actually become global.  The internet and e-literature are an unprecedented shift in that they are far more widespread and therefore very quickly adopted.  Everything’s like that these days.  Globalization is a phenomenon getting no small attention.

But I don’t think it’s the end of literature as we know it.  I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago that skimmed my thoughts on self-publishing, a new phenomenon of the e-book era: in short, I think it’s worrisome that there’s no method of checking the readiness of a work before it’s published.

But when writing came along, suddenly you no longer had to go through years of training to become a scholar.  When the printing press came along, suddenly you no longer had to painstakingly write a manuscript out by hand.  And now, when e-books come along, suddenly you don’t have to go through a painstaking editing process. With each step, things get simpler, more accessible.   And as much as I love my Really Old Stories, I don’t think the argument can be made that no good literature has come out since 800 BCE.

The good stuff just tends to last.

We survived.  We will survive again.  And I’m really, really excited to see what happens next.


One thought on “The Shift in Literature

  1. Pingback: Words, Words, Words… | The Evening Ramble

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