Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Decline and Fall of the Book: Why the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica means the end of Western civilization

There was the Great Flood. There were the Ten Plagues of Egypt. There was the Fall of Rome. There was the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the Fall of Constantinople. And now this.

The Encyclopedia Britannica is going out of print.

While the Simpsons just celebrated its 500th show, the world's greatest learned publication couldn't even make it to its 250th anniversary. Will the last person who even knows what Western civilization is please turn out the lights?

I submit that this is the most significant cultural event of the last fifty years. No. Make that a hundred. The New Dark Ages are upon us.

T. S. Eliot ended his poem, "The Hollow Men," with the words:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.
The sing-song rhythm of the first three lines evokes a child's careless playground chant, as if Eliot meant to say that the end of the world would be attended with a general lack of awareness that anything significant was really happening--and that, when it did happen, it might go unremarked or even unnoticed.

If you want proof that our own culture is experiencing this very kind of end, just look at the malaise with which we have greeted the Britannica announcement. Note the general cultural yawn directed toward the announcement that they will be suspending their print edition.

The best anyone could do was to give the glib assurance that there was nothing to worry about, since Britannica will continue in an electronic edition.

If someone important to you died, would you find comfort from being told that he or she would continue on in a digital form? No. Encyclopedia Britannica is dead. We now have only its electronic ghost.

Our cultural landscape is fast becoming welter and waste. Before the barbarian onslaught of the computer, one would go to a place and read a thing. There was a library, and it had books, and one went there to read them. Go into a library now, and look to the right, where there are rows of shelves of books, but no people. Then look to the left, where there are rows and rows of people--sitting at computers.

Soon the shelves will be gone, the books sold, leaving only the people, staring mesmerized at their screens. They won't even notice that the books have been taken away.

Every technological revolution has its benefits--and its casualties. The invention of writing was itself a technological  revolution. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato tells a story about the old god Theuth, the inventor of many arts, including arithmetic and geometry. But his greatest discovery, said Plato, "was the use of letters." He came one day to Thamus, the Egyptian god-king, who dwelt in Thebes. Theuth presented his great invention, writing, to the king. "This," said Theuth," will make the Egyptians wiser. It will increase their memory and improve their wit." But the Egyptian king was not impressed.

"Because these letters are like your own offspring," he said, "you are blind to their faults. This discovery of yours will only create forgetfulness in the learner's soul because he will no longer need to use his memory. He will trust to the written characters instead of his memory, and will not remember them himself. These letters of yours may help in reminiscence, but they are not an aid to memory. Your hearers will become, not disciples of the truth, but of a semblance of truth only. They will be hearers of many things, but they will learn nothing."

This seems a harsh judgment to us today, and yet there is truth in it. Writing brought about many improvements, but it would be false to think that, in moving away from an oral culture where memorization was the primary method of learning, something was not lost.

The invention of letters was followed more than two millenia later by the invention of movable type, a revolution without which the Renaissance and the Reformation would not even have been possible. But with the increase in the availability of the written word, there have been losses once again. For every work of Shakespeare put between covers, there were twenty cheap romance novels. For every book designed to teach an intelligent public, there are fifty newspapers distorting events. And for every learned tome, there are an hundred volumes of pornography.

But over the last twenty years, we have been taking another step. What Marshall McCluhan called the "Guttenburg Galaxy" displaced the Parchment Planet. But as we have moved into the Electronic Era, we find that the actual universe itself cannot contain it.

The material on which we would now inscribe our thoughts and our dreams is not material at all. For at least two millenia we have seen the physical act of writing as a kind of embodiment. Our thoughts were somehow rendered complete by being made incarnate on the written page.

They became flesh and dwelt among us.

The digital revolution comes at us with a kind of Gnostic pretense. Far from any kind of embodiment, it promises to liberate us from the physical altogether. Just listen to the justifications from those who have abandoned their books for Kindles or Nooks or iPads:

The "delivery method is convenient." Amazon.com delivers my books right to my home. And if I go to a bookstore (which is something I do, not as a chore, but because I actually like to do it), I have this trick I perform with my arm whereby I lift it vertically in the air, grasp the book on the shelf in my hand and bring my arm (in another intricate movement) back down again.

After a while you get pretty good at it.

"iPads and Kindles are good for the environment." Is that before or after we found out that the manufacturing plants discharge toxic metals that can cause birth defects into nearby streams in China? Producing books may involve killing trees, but you can grow more trees. But if you're born with three noses because of toxic chemicals in your ground water from the nearby iPhone plant, growing another one won't do you much good.

You "don't have to carry fifty pounds of books everywhere." Neither do I. If I have fifty pounds of books, I'm carrying too many books. Who needs to carry around fifty pounds of books? Some students say they have to carry around fifty pounds of books, but that's probably more a function of inefficient study practices than anything else. And if you really have to spend a day at school and you're a commuter and you have to carry around fifty pounds of books, the get a travel bag with wheels.

I will admit that my wife accuses me of carrying around fifty pounds of books, but I deny it. I only carry around, oh, I don't know, about thirty pounds of books. And I really don't need them all. I tell my wife I bring them with me for the same reason I bring her: because I take comfort from having them there.

"You can highlight things in a kindle that can be easily erased" and "make notes." Look folks, GET A PENCIL.

My books have a number of distinct advantages over your iPad.

When the stewardess comes around and tells everyone to turn off their electronic devices, I just look around and laugh an evil laugh as all of these people with iPads and Nooks have to stop reading until we reach the right altitude. I, on the other hand, go on reading. The next time I'm on a plane and the stewardess gives this command, I'm going to flag her down and tell her that I can't find the on/off switch for my print copy of Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy and so what should I do?

She may call TSA on me, but it will have been worth it.

And when I get old and die, I can hand on my books to my children. If I have a Kindle, what am I going to do? Hand down an old Kindle that will undoubtedly be completely obsolete by them?

Each one of my books has a history. Some of them are previously owned books. The other day a student's paper fell out of the pages of one old book I had. It had the teacher's marks and the student's own amusing responses. It was from the 1950s. I don't remember anything falling out of any digital device I have ever owned that did not render it inoperable.

I can sometimes tell something about the previous owner of a book. I have a small set of philosophy books I bought once and I can tell that the man who owned them was a smoker. I have imagined that maybe it was a priest, sitting in his study, reading about Thomas Aquinas' metaphysics.

And if they do not have my own marks and notes, they have the marks and notes of others who owned them before. I buy a lot of used books, and a couple of years ago I bought a used copy of The Idea of Nature, by R. G. Collingwood, online. When I received it, I opened the cover and beheld a bookplate with the name Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr had marked the book extensively, and so what I had received in the mail was not just a good book, but the thoughts about the book from one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

A book can almost have a personality. It was written by somebody, and it is about something. Neither of these things can be said of a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad. They are not written at all and are not about anything.

After libraries have all closed down or become free computer centers, there will still be people like me, feeling like monks in monasteries preserving books in their own private libraries.


Singring said...

'A book can almost have a personality. It was written by somebody, and it is about something. Neither of these things can be said of a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad. They are not written at all and are not about anything.'

You do realize that Kindles and Nooks and what have you display exactly the same letters as the printed work, only on a different substrate?

I have a Kindle and I have found it immensely useful, especially for reading publications in pdf format that I would otherwise have to print out and lug around with me, only to discard them once I am through with that particular subject. It also helps our Biology Department to not have to store reams of scientific journals that no one uses anymore because its all online. I also find the Kindle very handy to download free versions of the classics - something I thought you would encourage, Martin.

I still love the traditional printed book, though, and will not stop buying them any time soon. Some of your points in response to Kindle users are quite good, but they cut both ways. Ultimately, I see no good reason why the two formats cannot exist side by side. Do we really need millions of copies of the latest Tom Clancy or John Grisham clogging landfills and recycling plants two years after everyone has gotten around to reading them?

As to the Encyclopedia Britannica going 'out of rpint' (it isn't actually, its just changing formats to become an exclusively online edition, I quote: 'Future editions will live exclusively online') - it is certainly not the end of Western Civilization and it also isn't the most significant event in the last 100 or even 50 years. Not even close. Not even in the same ballpark. The information in those tomes is not going to go away - instead it is becoming more easy to access for more people. That's a positive development.

At least among those people who favour the dissemination of information to the maximum number of people.

KyCobb said...

I find it amusingly ironic that an internet blogger is mourning the passing of the printed page. Of course change always brings loss. I imagine people mourned the loss of their relationship with their horse when it was replaced with a car.

Art said...

This entry should be re-named "The Decline and Fall of Intelligent Design Creationism".

In his book, Meyer invokes Polyani in Chapter 11 to argue, in essence, that the medium is not the message - the chemistry of DNA and RNA does not constitute the (alleged) information that ID proponents claim to see in living things.

So it's a surprise to read that Martin disagrees with his handlers at the Discovery Institute, arguing that the medium is (at least part of) the message. Next thing you know, he'll be singing praises for Yarus.

Good ol' Martin, quite the iconoclast.

Martin Cothran said...

I have changed the reference to "The Wasteland," to "The Hollow Men," a mistake which R. A. Litherland has pointed out.

R.A. Litherland said...

Ah, I see. Correcting your mistake with no acknowledgement -- this is the way the right works. Do you teach the unfortunate children subjected to your version of home "schooling" that this is legitimate?

Martin Cothran said...

R. A. Litherland,

I acknowledged it right above your last comment. Maybe you didn't see it before you posted?

R.A. Litherland said...

Oops. A timing glitch there. I retract the imputation.

Anonymous said...

Martin, did you check the correct title to the poem by looking in a book, or going online?

Martin Cothran said...

I did it from memory.

One Brow said...

The fall of Western Civilization was obviously when mass literacy replaced the town storyteller. Stories used to be personal things, shared as a group, not read on your own, your mind stayhng private. Stories responded to the culture of the town, connecting directly to the people there.

That is how silly your diatribe sounds.

Martin Cothran said...

One Brow,

I'd check to see if your reading glasses were operating properly and read it again, since it doesn't have much bearing on what I actually wrote.

One Brow said...


If the classical education and emphasis on logic produces people who can so completely miss the point of that analogy, perhaps you should stop trumpeting for them.

Transmitting cultural information by electronic reader is different from doing it by book, just as transmitting it by book is different from transmitting it by town storyteller. The difference is that you grew up with books, and you're wallowing in your nostalgia. Eventually electronic readers wil be replaced or significantly altered, and we'll see (I we live that long) some middle-aged Kindle reader bemoaning how that change will singnal the end of Western Civilization (whicxh seems to be continuing, despite its end).

Unknown said...

Mr. Cothran,

I am interested in posting this essay on my site, The Imaginative Conservative (www.imaginativeconservative.org), with appropriate credit and link. Is this agreeable to you?

Martin Cothran said...


I'd be honored. I love you blog.

Martin Cothran said...


I'd be honored. I love you blog.

Martin Cothran said...


Martin Cothran said...

One Brow,

I guess you missed the intentional hyperbole of the early part of the post. Did you read the part from Plato's Phaedrus, the point of which was that new technologies bring both progress and trouble, an acknowledgement that even Kindle brings about a little of both?

One Brow said...


I missed the hyperbole. I suppose that one problem in reading people who regularly post views on the extreme edge of things is to know when they are being hyperbolic. When you are a mile away, it's hard to see someone else say they are mistrepresenting their postion by a foot.

However, the fault in mine, in that I have not yet learned sufficiently to see the world from where you are. I'll try to improve.

I do agree that progress always brings loss and trouble. "Change is good." "But it's not easy." However, humans have a way of carryint the best parts of the old ways along for the ride.

Unknown said...

Martin, have you been following the comments on our post of this essay on The Imaginative Conservative?

Unknown said...

Martin, are you coming to the CiRCE conference in July? My email address is Winston.Elliott@ImaginativeConservative.org.