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“The book is like the spoon: once invented, it cannot be bettered” Umberto Eco

The book will never die

Jean-Claude Carrière: At the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2008, one of the speakers was a futurologist who argued that four phenomena would drastically change humanity over the next 15 years. The first was oil at $500 a barrel. The second was that water, like oil, would become a commercial product, and be traded on the stock market. The third was the inevitability of Africa becoming an economic power – certainly something we would all like to see.

The fourth phenomenon, according to this professional prophet, was the disappearance of the book. The question is whether the permanent eclipse of the book – should it in fact take place – would have the same consequences for humanity as the predicted shortage of water, or affordable oil.

Umberto Eco: Will the book disappear as a result of the internet? I wrote about this at the time – by which I mean at a time when the question seemed topical. Now, when I am asked for my opinion, I simply repeat myself, rewriting the same text. Nobody notices this, firstly because there’s nothing more original than what has already been said, and secondly because the public (or the journalistic profession at least) is still obsessed with the idea that the book is about to disappear (or perhaps journalists just think their readers are obsessed); therefore, journalists never tire of asking this same question.

“Either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been”

There is actually very little to say on the subject. The internet has returned us to the alphabet. If we thought we had become a purely visual civilisation, the computer returns us to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on, everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium. This medium cannot simply be a computer screen. Spend two hours reading a novel on your computer and your eyes turn into tennis balls. At home, I use a pair of Polaroid glasses to protect my eyes from the ill effects of unbroken onscreen reading. And in any case, the computer depends on electricity and cannot be read in a bath, or even lying on your side in bed.

One of two things will happen: either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon. When designers try to improve on something like the corkscrew, their success is very limited; most of their “improvements” don’t even work. Philippe Starck attempted an innovative lemon-squeezer; his version may be very handsome, but it lets the pips through. The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes. Perhaps it will evolve in terms of components; perhaps the pages will no longer be made of paper. But it will still be the same thing.

J-CC: It seems that the latest versions of the e-book have put it in direct competition with the printed book.

UE: There’s no doubt that a lawyer could take his 25,000 case documents home more easily if they were loaded on to an e-book. In many areas, the electronic book will turn out to be remarkably convenient. But I am still not convinced – even with first-rate reading technology – that it would be particularly advisable to read ‘War and Peace’ on an e-book.
We shall see. It’s certainly true that we won’t be able to read our editions of Tolstoy for ever, or indeed any of the books in our collection that are printed on wood pulp, because they are starting to decompose. The Gallimard and Vrin editions from the 1950s are mostly gone already. I can no longer even pick up my copy of Étienne Gilson’s ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’, which served me so well when I was writing my thesis. The pages literally fall to pieces. I could of course buy a new edition, but I’m attached to the old one, with its different-coloured annotations telling the story of my different readings.

Jean-Philippe de Tonnac [mediator]: Why not concede that with the development of new media better and better adapted to the demands of e-reading – whether of encyclopaedias or novels – there will be a slow loss of interest in the object of the book in its traditional form?

UE: Anything might happen. In future books may interest only a handful of ardent enthusiasts, who will satisfy their backward-looking curiosity in museums and libraries.

J-CC: If there are any left.

UE: But one can also imagine that the fantastic invention that is the internet may likewise disappear. Just as airships have disappeared from our skies. The future of the airship collapsed when the Hindenburg caught fire in New York State just before the war. The same goes for Concorde: the Gonesse accident in 2000 was fatal. Now that’s a very interesting story. An aeroplane was invented that could cross the Atlantic in three hours instead of eight. Who could argue with such progress? But after the Gonesse disaster, Concorde was deemed too expensive and abandoned. What kind of reason is that? The atomic bomb is very expensive too.

J-PdeT: Hermann Hesse had some interesting things to say about the “re-legitimisation” of the book that he thought would result from technical developments. He was writing in the 1950s: “The more the need for entertainment and mainstream education can be met by new inventions, the more the book will recover its dignity and authority. We have not yet quite reached the point where young competitors, such as radio, cinema, etc, have taken over functions from the book that it can’t afford to lose.”

J-CC: In that regard he wasn’t mistaken. Cinema, radio and even television have taken nothing from the book – nothing that it couldn’t afford to lose.

UE: At a certain point in time, man invented the written word. We can think of writing as an extension of the hand, and therefore as almost biological. It is the communication tool most closely linked to the body. Once invented, it could never be given up. As I said about the book, it was like the invention of the wheel. Today’s wheels are the same as wheels in prehistoric times. Our modern inventions – cinema, radio, internet – are not biological.

Do we need to know the name of every soldier at the Battle of Waterloo?

J-PdeT: You have described the contemporary challenge of finding reliable tools to preserve that which needs to be preserved. But is the function of memory to retain everything and anything?

UE: No, of course not. Memory – whether it’s our individual memory or the collective memory that is culture – has a double function. On the one hand to preserve certain data, and on the other to allow information that does not serve us and could pointlessly encumber our brains to sink into oblivion. A culture unable to filter the heritage it receives from previous centuries brings to mind Borges’ ‘Funes the Memorious’, in which the title character is endowed with the ability to remember everything. That is the exact opposite of culture. Culture is essentially a graveyard for books and other lost objects. Scholars are currently researching how culture is a process of tacitly abandoning certain relics of the past (thus filtering), while placing others in a kind of refrigerator, for the future. Archives and libraries are cold rooms in which we store what has come before, so that the cultural space is not cluttered, without having to relinquish those memories entirely. We can always go back to them some day in the future, should the mood take us.

“One can also imagine that the fantastic invention that is the Internet may likewise disappear. Just as airships have disappeared”

A historian would probably be able to track down the name of every soldier at the Battle of Waterloo, but these names are not taught at school or even university because this level of detail is not necessary, and may even be dangerous.

Let me give you another example. We know a lot about Caesar’s last wife, Calpurnia, up until the date of his assassination, the Ides of March, when she advised him not to go to the Senate on account of a bad dream she’d had.

However, we know nothing at all about what happened to her after Caesar’s death. She disappears from the collective memory. Why? Because there was no longer any point in knowing anything about her. And this was not, as you might suspect, because she was a woman. Clara Schumann was a woman too, but we know all about her life after Robert’s death. Culture, therefore, is this process of selection. But contemporary culture is quite the opposite. The internet drowns us in
detail about every Calpurnia the world over, on a day-by-day and minute-by-minute basis, to the extent that a kid researching his homework could be forgiven for thinking that Calpurnia was just as important as Caesar.

‘This Is Not the End of the Book: a conversation about the past, present and future’ by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière (curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac and translated by Polly McLean) is published by Harvill Secker.

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