Friday, January 23, 2009

Some Kind of Reformation Going On...

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be....

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "In Memoriam"

In addition to a normal historical interest, I have an extra "Lutheran" fascination with the development of Gutenberg's printing press because about sixty years after its invention it was used to publish Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses (and everything else Luther wrote), resulting in Luther's becoming the most famous person in Europe in his own lifetime. (The printing press undoubtedly also played a role in rescuing Luther from the fate of Jan Hus, the Bohemian priest who was burned at the stake for teaching -- one hundred years earlier -- the same things Luther taught.) The history and success of the Protestant Reformation and the book are inextricably entwined. 

I thought of this as I watched founder Jeff Bezos deliver an engaging (to me) introduction of the "Kindle," Amazon's new digital reader, on CSpan. (Here's a YouTube version.) At the conclusion of the piece, I was raving "I want one!" Although I later settled down and had second thoughts (because it is currently limited primarily to best-sellers), Bezos' presentation seemed like a charmingly subversive hint of significant things to come -- like a change of Gutenbergian proportions. 

The Kindle is no Printing Press, but it certainly is one of many technological advances portending the end of the book as the primary medium of information. Yes, of course, I bemoan this. But if I do, I'm contributing to my own grief, for what I really want is the Kindle for convenience and the ability to order any volume I desire in book form. (Will this not become increasingly possible as yet another niche in on-demand on-line marketing? Order up a printed copy of "East of Eden" and have it delivered in three days.) I would never be satisfied with only the digital existence of the poetry of John Donne (for example -- and hundreds of others). I want the Kindle and the classic book-lined room. I want it both ways.

I'm not observant or far-seeing enough to predict what Reformation-like change may parallel this new technology, but some societal event will certainly occur (is occurring) that someone -- writing five hundred years from now -- will claim couldn't have happened without the transition from paper to digital information. 

What was literally unthinkable to me just a few years ago (the end of the era of the book!!??) now seems as though it has always been inevitable -- why should we expect that this "little system," like its predecessors, wouldn't have its day and be succeeded by the next.

What was the change like five hundred years ago? Here's a clever video depicting the introduction of the book to a skeptical medieval scholar.

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