the end of the book

Rosângela Rennó (Reviews Journal)


Classic article by recently deceased essayist

In the preface to Henry-Jean Martin's (1992:14) work on the history of the book, historian Lucien Febvre envisions a possible disappearance of this instrument considered to be one of the most fundamental in the construction of modern civilizations. “In the middle of the 14th century, we are not sure that [the book] can continue to play its role for long, threatened as it is by so many inventions based on totally different principles”. For the illustrious historian, the book, “which began its career in the middle of the XNUMXth century” (p. XNUMX), seems today to boil down to a dated event: after having contributed to the revolution of the modern world, it finds itself now constrained to justify its role in a society governed by speed, in a society in which information circulates according to the temporality of electromagnetic waves and fiber optic networks.

The book's production mode is too slow for a world that undergoes vertiginous mutations by the minute. The attractions of the book pale before the whirlwind of possibilities opened up by the audiovisual means, while its structure and functionality suffer from a cadaverous rigidity when compared with the computerized, interactive and multimedia resources of electronic “writings”. As if everything were not enough, the production costs of the printed book are now growing in geometric progression (and not only in Brazil), even surpassing the costs of many new media, even the most sophisticated ones. Now, as is known, wide dissemination at low prices was the main reason for the success of the press as a form of circulation of ideas from the Renaissance onwards. If the trend of progressive increase in price and regressive effectiveness intensifies, it is to be assumed that, within some time, the paper book will be a luxury item, sold in antique shops and china shops to a select clientele of nostalgic resisters.

Certainly, this is not the first time that the end of the book has been predicted. In 1929, impressed by the iconic and vertical writing that took over the streets through the luminous advertisements, Walter Benjamin (1978:77-79) already prophesied that “the book, in its traditional form, is heading towards its end” and that "the swarms of scriptural locusts, which today already obscure the sun from the pretended spirit of the citizens of the great cities, will become even denser in the years to come." In the same context, the great thinker of modernity goes so far as to denounce the obsolescence of the book in the contemporary world, converted as it was into a stage for rhetorical exercises and a support for academic routine. “Today, as the current mode of scientific production demonstrates, the book has become a useless mediation between two different information management systems. For what really matters can be found in the researcher's binder, where he writes down his discoveries, and the student who studies him does nothing but assimilate the researcher's ideas to his own binder”.

While the intellectuals of his time were still discussing the legitimacy of using the typewriter as a substitute for handwriting, Benjamin already pointed to the horizon of interactive databases and computerized hypertext and hypermedia systems, which tend to impose themselves as the “scriptural” forms of the next successor stage of the printed book: “We can assume that new systems, with more versatile forms of writing, will become increasingly necessary. They will replace the malleability of the hand with the nervousness of the fingers that operate commands”.

Benjamin's predictions are confirmed. A growing number of specialist journals are no longer published on paper, but are now available on line for subscribers with a modem, a telephone line and access to international networks such as the Internet. The newest generation of text editors can no longer be seen as a mere tool to aid writing, but as a new medium, complete in itself, since it allows adding a certain number of audiovisual elements to texts (oralized voice , music, motion pictures) that can no longer be printed on paper.

The memory of civilizations

But perhaps this is not the most appropriate way of posing the problem. We are restricting the concept of “book” only to its typographic expression, as it crystallized from the XNUMXth century onwards with Gutenberg's model of the press. Both Febvre's negative argument and Benjamin's positive argument somewhat reinforce this idea that a book is necessarily a printed book, and above all printed on paper. Perhaps this concept of the book is doomed to disappear, more so than the book itself. We have become accustomed to calling a “book” what, in fact, is a derivation of the model of the codex Christian. The codex was a characteristic manuscript format in which the parchment was cut into loose sheets, which in turn were gathered in notebooks sewn or glued on one side and very commonly covered with some harder material.

From the XNUMXth century on, Christians chose this format as the standard for sacred scriptures, in order to differentiate them from pagan literature, generally written on parchment rolls (at least in the West). Until then, codex (codex) was the name Christians used to designate the sacred scriptures. Since, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, the sacred scriptures gained a distinctive format from a material point of view, the codex became the designation of the format itself. Book (release), however, had a more generic connotation and designated any device for fixing thought, be it inscription in stone or wood, wax tablet, scroll of parchment, etc. (Evaristo Arns, 1993). Over time, that is, with the expansion of Christianity and the generalization of the Christian format, the terminology is inverted: “book” comes to exclusively designate the codex and we are left without a more generic term to refer to any other device of information. fixation of thought.

The Gutenberg Bible, being a Christian book, follows the codex model. In part because the emergence of the printed book is associated with a religious debate and in part also because the Christian book turned out to be a portable format, more compact and more practical than parchment rolls. The truth is that the printed book adopted the codex format for itself and this model has planted such deep roots in our culture that today it becomes difficult to think of the book as something different. But he can be different, as he was in other times and is now again.

We can define “book” in a broader sense, as being each and every device through which a civilization records, fixes, memorizes for itself and for posterity the set of its knowledge, its discoveries, its systems of beliefs and the flights of your imagination. Or, in a more modern context, in the words of Lucien Febvre himself (Martin, 1992:15): a book is the most powerful instrument a civilization can dispose of to concentrate the dispersed thought of its representatives and give it all its effectiveness, spreading it quickly into the social fabric, with a minimum of costs and difficulties. Its primary function is to "confer [to thought] a hundredfold vigor, a completely new coherence and, for that very reason, an incomparable power of penetration and irradiation".

Let's agree that such objectives can be achieved with other means than necessarily the Christian codex. In the ancient East, the book was in the form of wooden or bamboo tablets crossed by a buckle that held them together and on them vertically was written with the help of styluses bathed in a kind of enamel. From the XNUMXth century BC until the XNUMXth century of our era, the book was associated with the work of the scribe or copyist, who forged it through laborious writing and unusual illuminations on rolls of parchment, papyrus, vellum or linen paper. The book did not always have an “author”. When it did, the author (that is, the poet, the philosopher, the scientist) was not exactly the one who wrote: he just dictated his thoughts to the scribes, who later edited them into books, naturally according to greater or lesser literary refinement. of each.

The manuscript culture is far from being a “lesser” or more limited culture than the typographic one. Let us remember that copying books was considered an intellectual work in the Middle Ages: copying a text was a way of studying it (sometimes also of altering it, when one disagreed with it). Moreover, we cannot forget that, until the XNUMXth century, all literature existed, above all, to be recited in public and the manuscript was just an accessory instrument of this vast and influential oral culture, which gave us thinkers like Pythagoras, Socrates and Democritus and poets like Homer and the medieval troubadours.

This is why the idea of ​​a book cannot necessarily be associated with a record of the written word. Plato, in Phaedrus, defines the book as gegrammenos logos (written words), but the very civilization in which he is inserted belies it. In oral societies, elders are “living books”, that keep the memory of the community. Chaytor (1945:116) observes that if all printed copies of the Rigveda, the sacred book of the indians could be immediately and easily reconstituted, because any indian citizen knows the text by heart (which is surprising considering that the book is bigger than the Iliad and joints). In this sense, the fable imagined by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 and taken to the cinema by François Truffaut: to resist a totalitarian regime that made the book illegal and condemned all existing volumes to the stake, each citizen decides to memorize the full text of a book, in order to preserve its content even after all printed copies were burned, thus initiating the generation of bookmen.

Bookmen are not just privileges of totalitarian societies or archaic pre-typographical communities. Even in the twentieth century, some of our most important thinkers were essentially oral thinkers. See the examples of Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan, decisive intellectuals for the directions taken by contemporary thought and who, paradoxically, left us very few writings in their own hand. In fact, the work of such thinkers consists mainly of compilations made by their students, based on class notes. Other equally decisive intellectuals of our time – such as Marx, Husserl, Peirce, Wittgenstein, Valéry, Benjamin, Eisenstein and many others –, although they obviously cannot be considered oral thinkers, nevertheless bequeathed us few published works. The most significant portion of his writings came down to us in the form of tons of archive notes, which specialists now pore over in search of new teachings.

Certainly men like these were too fertile to publish books; ideas poured out of their heads at such a speed that it was humanly impossible to finish them off or polish them with the varnish of erudite rhetoric, especially considering the short span of their lives. They were thought craftsmen, not paragraph makers. But perhaps the “difficulty” of producing books has another reason, not noticed by contemporaries: it is possible that, ultimately, the thinking of such men was too complex to be reduced to the straitjacket of the printed text. It is possible that the thinking of these masters resisted the quality control of sequential writing, with its overly simplistic logic of inferences, and was better suited to a non-linear form of recording, in which the “note file” was the only option available. in their times. “The binder represents the conquest of three-dimensional writing and, at the same time, a return to the three-dimensionality of writing as it was practiced in its beginnings, through the rune and nodular writing (Benjamin, 1978:78). Experts call these notes manuscripts, as if their main characteristic was the fact that they were not published, as if the fate of all thought was to end up in print in the form of the Christian codex. But isn't the work of the most decisive thinkers of our time demanding another structuring device, more suited to the complexity of their discoveries?

“The idea that knowledge is essentially book knowledge”, states Marshall McLuhan (1972:113), “seems to be very much a modern notion, probably derived from the medieval distinction between clerics and laity, which came to give new emphasis to the literary and somewhat extravagant character of sixteenth-century humanism. McLuhan is well known for being one of the first intellectuals to denounce the standardizing and serial character of the paradigm introduced in the West by Gutenberg's press. Our intellectual institutions, however, still seem to let themselves be lulled by the odd ideas that knowledge is exclusively associated with the conceptual model of the printed text or that one can only think with words, preferably with written words. There is still a widespread tendency in academic circles, especially in the humanities, to confuse intellectual competence with talent for writing.

Some of Jacques Lacan's lectures were given on radio and television programs. Transcriptions of lecture texts were later published in a book (Lacan, 1974), but could we honestly say that the printed text is more legitimate than radio or television programs? How many printed books could rival in originality, length of research, depth of analysis and scientific authority with television series such as Ways of Seeing, Inside the CIA: on Company Business, Planet Earth, The Power of Myth, Vietnam: a Television History, The Living Planet, Sur et Sous la Communication, El Arte del Video or the Brazilian America? Speaking about the difficulty of our contemporaries in understanding how Europe could produce a rich literary tradition in a period when the printed book did not yet exist, Martin (1992:33) explains that, penetrated as we are by a written culture, our imagination cannot be prodigious enough to understand the mechanism of oral cultures. “It seems, however”, he completes, “that, in our time, the new non-written means of diffusion of thought, such as the cinema and above all the radio, should help us to better conceive what can be, for millions of individuals, a transmission of works and ideas that no longer uses the normal circuit of the written text”. Taking into account the very concept of “book” already discussed above (instrument to give consistency to scattered thought and to expand its power of influence within a society), we could not say that films, videos, records and many Are radio and television programs the “book” of our time?

The book as device

But if we consider that the media continue, in our time, the historical project of the book, it is also necessary to consider that, in this same movement, they transform it, redirecting it according to the new needs of contemporary man. The book is now thought of as device, as machinery whose function is not only to support creative thinking but also to put it into operation. If before we considered the book as a resource to place the memory of man outside of man himself (thus giving it greater power of diffusion and permanence), a memory that is still static and resistant to the mutations of man himself, we can now visualize it as a machine inside which thought is already at work.

It was the Spanish writer José Ortega y Gasset who proposed, in 1939, the somewhat exotic idea of machine book. ”The purpose of the book-machine is to keep outside man, without prejudice to his mental energy and, at the same time, at his permanent disposal, the necessary information on the various orders of human pragmatism. Some German and English scientific works are today veritable devices that work almost automatically (mainly thanks to the refined technique of their indexes” (Ortega y Gasset, 1967:151). Encyclopedia by Diderot, begun in the 35th century: a work in 17 volumes (11 of text, 150 of plates, four of supplements, two of index and one of supplement of plates), fruit of the work of 1.000 specialists, four booksellers and XNUMX workers, that should account for the accumulated essential in terms of knowledge until the time of its publication.

The great novelty introduced by Encyclopedia, was the concept of structuring the text(s): both the alphabetical order of the entries, as well as the subject indexes and keywords that refer to other parts of the work, give an entirely new meaning to the book: it is no longer about of a work to be read in its entirety, from the first to the last page, but of a thought organization device, which can be penetrated in a non-linear way, from any point and from there jump to any other, in order to discover only what we are currently looking for. In other words, it is a lighthouse book, intended to illuminate the paths and help with navigation, a book to which we must return at all times, like a compass, like a map of land, whenever we decide to draw our own way.

The project of Encyclopedia profoundly influenced the very history of the book. Not only did it model the so-called reference books (dictionaries, manuals and even encyclopedias), but it also contributed to a certain improvement of the very idea of ​​the book. Many books produced today, especially in the various areas of the so-called exact sciences, use procedures inspired by Encyclopedia, as is the case with boxes of parallel information, detailed commented illustrations, meticulous glossaries, as well as very sophisticated analytical and onomastic indexes, which allow non-linear entries in the text.

But the idea of ​​the book-machine would have to lead to the machine itself, the computer, where it would give birth to audiovisual and non-linear electronic works, with random access to any of its parts, equipped with extremely advanced search mechanisms (such as those based on in Boolean algebra), built on simultaneous three-dimensional structures (which allow several texts to be placed on the screen at the same time, for comparative reading, or to open on the screen windows through which other excerpts related to the currently displayed text can be viewed), works that can also be distributed and accessed by telephone or electromagnetic waves, through computerized virtual libraries.

The great theories of the last five hundred years, as well as the systematic explanations of the great thinkers and even certain philosophical conceptions of "truth" (founded on objectivity and universality) were based largely on a certain stability and uniqueness that, in some way, the book printed guarantee. Today, with thoughts in permanent metamorphosis, all of this seems excessively fixed and not very operative. Based on hypertextual writings, it is customary to say that the writer, the critic, the scientist no longer write texts; they process ideas.

According to Pierre Lévy (1993), the human spirit has known, throughout history, three distinct times: that of orality (based on memory, narrative and rite), that of writing (based on interpretation, theory and legislation) and finally, information technology (based on operational modeling and simulation as a form of knowledge). “Theories, with their norms of truth and the critical activity that accompanies them, give way to models, with their norms of efficiency and the judgment of pertinence that presides over their evaluation. inert, but runs on a computer. It is in this way that the models are continuously corrected and improved throughout the simulations. A model is rarely definitive” (Lévy, 1993:120).

In fact, the history of the book has always been associated with writing or reading devices, so that the assimilation of the idea of ​​the book to the technology of the period is not a privilege of our time. Let us remember that, in the Middle Ages, reading the manuscript required the invocation of a whole technical apparatus: not only was it necessary to resort to a system of easels and levers, because the book was too large and heavy a volume to be handled ( sometimes even with cast-iron covers and large locks), but also the concept of reading was completely different from what prevails today: reading was necessarily done aloud, which required the concurrence of a cell or a closed cubicle , preferably soundproof. This is why McLuhan (1972:135) called the medieval monks' reading place sound booths., something very similar to today's telephone booths.

The history of the book is also related, albeit indirectly, to the techniques of mnemonics developed by the ancient Greeks and considered by Cicero to be one of the five parts of classical rhetoric. It was a question, then, of creating memorization procedures through auxiliary artificial resources, such as the association of what must be memorized with certain places or images. In the centuries that preceded the invention of the printing press, memory training was considered an activity of vital importance and on it depended, to a large extent, the survival of science and culture.

The excellent treatise by Frances Yates (1966) on the art of memory traces the historical panorama of the various procedures used by different peoples to increase the fixation power of memory, including the construction of architectural or theatrical scenarios intended for the performance of mnemonic elements. Along this panorama, already in the Renaissance, devices as exotic as they are ingenious stand out, such as the theater of memory by Giulio Camillo, the memorizing systems by Giordano Bruno and another theatrical system credited to Robert Fludd, most of them linked to tradition. kabbalistic. All of these devices are more or less contemporary with the invention of the press and, although directed from a different perspective, they aimed to provide answers to the same type of problem, namely the need for more effective devices for fixing human memory, including external supports, capable of to resist the ephemerality of the human body. Only printing has prevailed historically, but, as Greg Ulmer (1991:4) has already noted, in our time, the design of hypermedia applications in general has much in common with the design of mnemonic theaters of the Hermetic-Kabbalistic Renaissance.

One last issue remains to be examined. Why is the printed book replaced by computerized reading devices, by book-machine or interactive electronic books that travel over telephone cables or hertzian waves? This phenomenon can be explained from an economic point of view, as a strategy of electronics and information technology multinationals to monopolize all markets. But that would be an extreme simplification. The truth is that the universe of printed text has reached its saturation limit and today degenerates into entropy, due to the increasing difficulty of generating consistent meanings.

The universe of the book has grown to such an extent that today he suffers from a chronic disease, elephantiasis. In the fourteenth century, on the eve of the printing revolution, the Sorbonne library, considered the largest in Europe, had a collection of 1.228 books. Today, the world's largest libraries each house around ten million volumes. The Washington Library of Congress alone catalogs ten new titles per minute! It is estimated that, currently, in any part of the world, a reasonably updated library doubles in size every 14 years (Wurman, 1991:219-235). We are dangerously approaching the library-monster imagined by Jorge Luis Borges. The inevitable corollary of these numbers is that it becomes increasingly impossible for a normal human being to keep up to date with what is published on the planet, even limiting himself only to the three or four languages ​​most used for international communication and restricting all your readings exclusively to a specific area of ​​expertise.

In our time, we need other kinds of books, literature, specialized magazines and reference works. It is necessary that the new books work like machines, in the manner of Encyclopedia de Diderot, and signpost their paths, so that the reader can easily enter their avenues and quickly find what they are looking for. The works must be open to the reader's navigation, so that he can freely choose his route and make his own discoveries. Research devices need to be agile and intelligent, allowing the desired knowledge to be reached with a minimum of disruptions and without constraints of a geographic, economic or institutional nature. It is still necessary that the current and endless rhetorical exercises be replaced by condensed texts, endowed with the precision of a diagram and the speed of a haiku. Above all, the new books should be written in layers or differentiated levels of deepening, taking advantage of the three-dimensional structure of the hypertextual writings, so that a merely informative reading can be done, when one only wants to know what it is about, but also can delve deep into the argument, if the reader's interest goes further.

To get there, profound structural changes will have to occur with regard to publishing markets, reading habits, the academic routine at universities and the processing of information in what we now call libraries. Intelligent databases are expected to replace today's unimpressive binders; new software they will help in the task of locating, selecting and understanding the information; processing companies will offer specialized abstracting, summarizing and pre-reading services; new distribution channels, many of them online, should condemn the current bookstores to oblivion. All this will happen sooner than you think. In some places in the First World, the profile of libraries is already changing radically. In many of them, the books are being typed and stored in gigantic memories online, in order to allow remote access and search from any word in the host language. In a little while longer, many libraries will not have even a single printed book to display on their shelves, if they have shelves at all.

Movement in this direction is irreversible. A new kind of literature emerges from limbo and promises surprises never even dreamed of by the poets of other times. Agrippa (1992), by novelist William Gibson and graphic artist Dennis Ashbaugh, is perhaps the most provocative proposal in this sense: it is an ephemeral novel, which is being shuffled and destroyed by some kind of computer virus the very moment it is read, so that you only have one chance to know it, if you are fast enough. The Madness of Roland (by Greg Roach), a multimedia application considered by specialists as the first interactive novel in literature, is a medieval story built through several layers of comments and different narrative focuses, in order to allow forging narratives that are different from each other, depending on the point of view. view and the level of comment adopted. In the field of children's literature, living books such as Mixed-up Mother Goose (by Roberta Williams) and Just Grandma and Me (by Mercer Mayer), not only bring together music, animated images, written text and spoken voice in several languages ​​in a single context, but also make it possible to construct mutant stories, which change each time you turn to them. And if we want a Brazilian example, just remember the impressive return of orality recorded by Haroldo de Campos (1992), with the reading of 16 fragments of his Galaxies.

If the book is going to die or not, this is a discussion restricted only to philologist circles, because, deep down, everything is a matter of defining what we are calling a “book”. Man will continue, in any case, to invent devices to give permanence, consistency and scope to his thinking and the figments of his imagination. And he will also do everything to make these devices suitable for his time. Wisdom, as Brecht said, will always pass from mouth to mouth, but nothing prevents us from extending a microphone to the mouths that speak, to give them greater reach.

Arlindo Machado (1949-2020) was a professor at the Department of Cinema, Radio and TV at the School of Communications and Arts at USP. Author, among other books, of Pre-cinema and post-cinema (Papirus). Originally published in the magazine Advanced Studies, v. 8, no.o. 21, in May/Aug 1994.


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