The next edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary (OED) may not be printed, reports out of Britain said earlier this year. The Telegraph added that even Simon Winchester, author of The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, now believes that this latest bit of news on the famous dictionary was a “prescient” sign that the printed book was doomed to extinction. Prophets like Winchester argue that Kindles and iPads (and presumably the next fads in digital technology) will soon relegate the good old printed book “to the history books” (found only online, I’m sure).
But, hold on – let’s not eulogize the printed book just yet. There still may be some staying power in this ancient information technology. It has had, after all, a very successful run.
Introduced 2,000 years ago, the codex (which is the ancient Latin name for the book) revolutionized the ancient world. Within a few centuries of its birth, it superseded the scroll as the most convenient mode of writing, reading and pre-serving texts. And the next revolution in writing only increased its appeal and availability: with the advent of the printing press in 15th-century Germany, the book market exploded because the printing press made the once tedious and prohibitively expensive mode of copying texts by hand far cheaper and more efficient. Since then, the book has had an unrivalled place in our civilization.
Until now, they say.
But I believe the printed book will survive. It possesses inimitable traits. Unlike most kinds of digital technology, it is eminently readable and easy on the eyes; books are often beautiful works of art. Books are remarkably durable – more so than digital versions (just ask any archivist). And note that we still have the first printed books. The book has been wireless for 2,000 years. If you own one, you can mark it up, stick written notes in it, make comments in the margins, rip out pages. You can fetishize books, collect them, show them, give them away, trade them. They are wonderfully tactile and, despite the growing “virtual reality” of our lives, we are, from birth to death, tactile creatures.
Granted, the OED is a massive, multi-volume, and very expensive tome. The market for such a product is mostly limited to libraries, academics and book collectors. Even the compact edition, which I own, is huge and pricey. It is, after all, a dictionary, a reference book consulted for a few minutes at a time, for information about a specific word; it is not read like Moby Dick or The Aeneid. It is not so much a work of art or provocative argument as a massive repository of scholarship and information, and thus in electronic form the OED well suits the information age. It makes sense that the electronic version is much more popular than the print version. When you consult the OED, for instance while writing (a very normal time to consult it), you’re sitting at your computer, away from a reference library but connected to the Internet.
By prescient coincidence, the very day that I read the story in the Telegraph and heard about the coming demise of the printed book, I was in my office, connected to the Concordia University library, looking up a reference for a book. I was preparing for upcoming lectures on the ancient Israelites, the people of the Book, and I needed a book. But this book was available only in electronic form at my university library, and so too at neighbouring McGill University. Thus, I settled for the e-book. Only a few pages in, I gave up. Using my digital technology, I ordered a printed copy. The Romans were right: there is no substitute for the codex.
I am not a quixotic warrior against e-books, rashly shunning digital wonders and blithely ignoring the impressive facts about e-book sales. I am only defending the inimitable qualities of the printed book. I know that I am not a disinterested party: I love books. I teach at Concordia’s Liberal Arts College, a multidisciplinary “great works” program. We read, teach and love all sorts of printed books.
But we are not alone, and so long as people around the world appreciate the advantages the printed word offers, there will still be a market for books. And like the lessons of ancient Rome or medieval Germany have shown, where there is a market, printed books will continue to be produced and purchased.
Jarrett Carty is an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University.