Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Digital Gutenberg?

Innovation that sent shockwaves through publishing? Check. Changed the way we think about the written word? Yep. So is Jeff Bezos's place in human history secured? Let the debate begin. ♦ 

If at the end of this article you walk away with nothing more than the mounting hysteria bibliophiles face in the wake of recent developments in the publishing industry, then, for the love of all that can be printed between the crisp confines of a cover jacket, remember this: In 1450 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. I decided to preface with this information just in case you are one of those hopelessly antiquated traditionalists who haven’t quite grasped the methodology in reading entire articles from the screen of your smart phone. Let me be the first to say, welcome to 2014.
       Now, I’m fully aware that any semi-functioning piece of evolutionary matter with two thumbs and a keyboard could Google the year the printing press was invented in seconds flat, but I’m going to need you to actively remember that it was in 1450. First, because I feel that anyone attempting to engage in the literary conversation, as I assume you are by reading this article, will face better odds should they find themselves on the next million-dollar trivia-based game show, as I have it on substandard authority that Gutenberg is a topical favorite. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I would like you to have a basic sense of the implications when I begin tossing around comparisons between Gutenberg and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.
       In an article for Time magazine’s 2009 list of newsworthy people, Bill Gates put Jeff Bezos on the same pedestal as Johannes Gutenberg in regards to his catalytic transformation of the book publishing industry. Bezos has been called the “Digital Gutenberg” for Amazon’s popularization of the eBook, but is it even valid to predict that Jeff Bezos will be the money-winning answer on Jeopardy! hundreds of years from now? We can debate the longevity of Jeopardy! another time, but does Bezos indeed have the same transformative relevance as Gutenberg?
       Let’s return to an ancient scriptorium, during the medieval period, perhaps, for the sake of the sensationalist mental imagery of castles and suits of armor. In grand rooms, or possibly smaller cubicles, depending on the archaeologist in consultation, Catholic monks would work day in and day out copying manuscripts for the limited literate population. However, by the 1500s, this quaint little scene had already begun its decline, with the variance and individuality one found in handwritten manuscriptsin size and shape and thus usability, in simple availability, and, one hopes, not variance in the text itselfgiving way to the uniformity, utility, and easier access permitted by printed texts. Flash-forward to the modern era, hinging on the precipice of yet another literary transformation, and if the situation doesn't appear quite as decisive, without the benefit of futuristic hindsight, we can nevertheless see once again an inefficient traditional model being upended by a fantastic new technology, with the end result, of course, of putting more books in more hands.
       So as millions of book lovers clutch the dog-eared copies of their favorite works, terrified by the idea that the physical book might soon become a novelty item on the shelf next to Dad’s old record collection, publishers are scrambling to account for the changing market. As the bibliophiles point accusatory fingers at their recreationally literate friends who can’t seem to understand the moral dilemma in purchasing a Kindle, the publishing industry is, or at least should be, evolving. What happens next? We might ask ourselves whether the medieval monks ever felt like they had lost something after Gutenberg’s machine snatched the ink-stained quills right out of their fingers . . . but perhaps that isn't a relevant question at all. If the goal of those scribbling monks, beyond the aesthetic pleasures of their work, was to ultimately share knowledge and share texts, then they surely recognized that standard printed books are easier to read than the looping calligraphy of an artistically inclined monk—in the century after Gutenberg, in fact, even handwritten manuscripts began emulating type—and they would be astounded, furthermore, by the fact that the average person today has easy access to infinitely more books in their lifetime than anyone wandering around the fifteenth century.
       In the grand scheme of things, convenience and accessibility seem to trump nostalgia, or at least they do when the discussion is hundreds of years removed from the change. Though it seems to me that the comparison between Gutenberg and Bezos is a convenient projection of what could be, not what already is. I’m not trying to step on any digital toes here, but Bezos hasn’t quite yet secured the overplayed idea of the “inevitable” any historical comparisons might suggest. Traditional publishing houses still have time to pick up their paperweights and launch a real offense against the Amazonian dragon; it’s completely within their prerogative to do so. Consumers enticed by the gleaming low prices of Amazon’s eBooks now have the opportunity to make conscious decisions as to what they want more from their literary pursuits: the physical book, or simply its contents. And to all those indifferent folks who never realized they weren’t supporting the physical bookstore when buying their books at Walmart, feel free to sit back with your popcorn and observe.

  • About the Author
    Shea Hendry can never seem to decide whether she would rather be in a museum or a library. Instead, she spends her days studying history while simultaneously finding new and avante garde methods of incorporating excessive stacks of books into dorm room interior design.

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