Print is Dead: Long Live Print

I’m going to interrupt my usual broadcast on the local literature/film/mutant-killer-lizard scene for a brief meditation:

A few thousand years ago, a fellow with a knack for telling stories – who may have been blind, a captive or, in fact, several different people – paced around campfires and town squares, mumbling about heroes named Odysseus and Achilles, one-eyed monsters, sea creatures and jealous gods. Eventually, somebody figured out that his kids might get a kick out of these yarns and they became written (instead of oral) history. Now, you can read the epic poems in their entirety – in any language – without even leaving your house.

The transcription of Homer’s epics ran more or less parallel with the inception of the early Greek alphabet, at least as well as historians and classicists can determine. Around the same time, the Roman alphabet (which you are now reading) was evolving, borrowing heavily from the Greek (the French name for Y is i grec, derived only slightly from the original Roman name, meaning Greek I).

Oral tradition gave way to written records and a written tradition. Literacy rose worldwide, books became popular, the printing press came to be (ask me about kerns sometime), and reading became as affordable as it was fashionable.

Flash forward a few thousand years from Homer’s (or Homers’) time, and the keepers of the written tradition find themselves in a quandary, pondering “the future of books” in an increasingly technology-driven era.

I find myself in a coda to the conversation, slightly removed from the fray by personal and professional history: Though I write and edit for the Web, I’m the son of two literature majors. My father and mother wrote their theses on Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen, respectively – try to guess how they got together. My father is author of two nonfiction books (which I won’t plug by name, but trust me, they’re good) and editor of a collection of essays. My mother is now a code writer for a digital archiving company, the library of the future (as my father says, only half-jokingly, she “works for the Internet”).

I grew up with books, and I surround myself with them still, and for a while I dreaded what I saw as their eventual disappearance – but I eventually learned to stop worrying and love the Web, and here’s why.

Despite being touted for infinite capacity, tablets, personal computers and smartphones have distinct physical limitations, at least for the time being. There is, I believe, a reason that so many tablet applications and digital magazine editions mimic the visual of a page turning: Sometimes, it’s just easier.

Wait, what?

OK, I’ll allow for the possibility that, since my brain was trained from an early age to process information in consecutive pages, it might just be easier for me – and for my generation – to flip back and forth through a physical item rather than scroll through bits of data on a screen, but the thought has merit. Items in a book or magazine occupy a place in our spatial awareness (I’m basing that assertion on absolutely no research whatsoever), providing another dimension of “searchability.”

Now, for the “Internet Natives” of the current generation, that spatial component might be an unnecessary handicap, one chalked up to my generation’s peculiarities. (“Your mama’s so old, she reads books.”) I’ll certainly admit that the biggest reason I prefer physical books, wastefully printed on real paper, is that I’m just used to them. And while I can read a chapter, set a book or magazine down and return to it later, my willingness to do so with a digital article of similar length is not as keen – which is why David Foster Wallace’s Shipping Out remains a lonely icon on my laptop screen, untouched since three months ago when I started reading it. Of course, that might have something to do with my own reluctance to bring my laptop into my … er … well, let’s call it my “reading room.”

I’m waxing anecdotal and beginning to sound like a grumpy old man, so I’ll simply leave the matter thus: Print will never die. Paper may be facing its last days as a medium, but so have cave walls, stone tablets, vases, papyrus and calfskin. The way we tell stories never stops changing. The reasons for which we tell stories will always be the same.

Phew. Next week I promise to be more informative. Now I’m going to go finish that damned Wallace article.