The end of print foretold


From Octave Uzanne’s essay “The End of Books,” published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894:

What is my view of the destiny of books, my dear friends? The question is interesting, and fires me all the more because in good faith I never put it to myself before this hour.

If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.

Printing, which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought, and of which Luther said that it is the last and best gift by which God advances the things of the Gospel — printing, which has changed the destiny of Europe, and which, especially during the last two centuries, has governed opinion through the book, the pamphlet, and the newspaper — printing, which since 1436 has reigned despotically over the mind of man, is, in my opinion, threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.

Notwithstanding the enormous progress which has gradually been made in the printing-press, in spite of the already existing composing-machines, easy to run, and furnishing new characters freshly moulded in movable matrices, it still appears to me that the art in which Fust and Scheffer, Estienne and Vascosa, Aldus Manutius and Nicholas Jenson successively excelled, has attained its acme of perfection, and that our grand-children will no longer trust their works to this somewhat antiquated process, now become very easy to replace by phonography, which is yet in its initial stage, and of which we have much to hope. …

I take my stand, therefore, upon this incontestable fact, that the man of leisure becomes daily more reluctant to undergo fatigue, that he eagerly seeks for what he calls the comfortable, that is to say for every means of sparing himself the play and the waste of the organs. You will surely agree with me that reading, as we practise it today, soon brings on great weariness; for not only does it require of the brain a sustained attention which consumes a large proportion of the cerebral phosphates, but it also forces our bodies into various fatiguing attitudes. If we are reading one of our great newspapers it constrains us to acquire a certain dexterity in the art of turning and folding the sheets; if we hold the paper wide open it is not long before the muscles of tension are overtaxed, and finally, if we address ourselves to the book, the necessity of cutting the leaves and turning them one after another, ends by producing an enervated condition very distressing in the long run.

The art of being moved by the wit, the gayety, and the thought of others must soon demand greater facilities. I believe, then, in the success of everything which will favor and encourage the indolence and selfishness of men; the elevator has done away with the toilsome climbing of stairs; phonography will probably be the destruction of printing. Our eyes are made to see and reflect the beauties of nature, and not to wear themselves out in the reading of texts; they have been too long abused, and I like to fancy that some one will soon discover the need there is that they should be relieved by laying a greater burden upon our ears. This will be to establish an equitable compensation in our general physical economy. …

As for the book, or let us rather say, for by that time books ‘will have lived,’ as for the novel, or the storyograph, the author will become his own publisher. To avoid imitations and counterfeits he will be obliged, first of all, to go to the Patent–Office, there to deposit his voice, and register its lowest and highest notes, giving all the counter-hearings necessary for the recognition of any imitation of his deposit. The Government will realize great profits by these patents. Having thus made himself right with the law, the author will talk his work, fixing it upon registering cylinders. He will himself put these patented cylinders on sale; they will be delivered in cases for the consumption of hearers. …

At home, walking, sightseeing, these fortunate hearers will experience the ineffable delight of reconciling hygiene with instruction; of nourishing their minds while exercising their muscles for there will be pocket phono-operagraphs, for use during excursions among Alpine mountains or in the cafions of the Colorado. … Nothing will be lacking for them on this head; they may intoxicate themselves on literature as on pure water, and as cheaply, too, for there will then be fountains of literature in the streets as there are now hydrants. …

At every open place in the city little buildings will be erected, with hearing tubes corresponding to certain works hung all around for the benefit of the studious passer-by. They will be easily worked by the mere pressure of a button. On the other side, a sort of automatic book-dealer, set in motion by a nickel in the slot, will for this trifling sum give the works of Dickens, Dumaspére, or Longfellow, on long rolls all prepared for home consumption.

I go even farther: the author who desires personally to bring his work to the public knowledge after the fashion of the trouvéres of the Middle Ages, carrying them about from house to house, may draw a modest but always remunerative profit by renting to all the inmates of the same apartment-house a sort of portable organ, which may be slung over the shoulder, composed of an infinite number of small tubes connected with his auditory shop, by means of which his works may be wafted through the open windows to the ears of such lodgers as may desire amusement in a moment of leisure, or cheer in an hour of solitude.

People of small means will not be ruined, you must admit, by a tax of four or five cents for an hour’s ‘hearing,’ and the fees of the wandering author will be relatively important by the multiplicity of hearings furnished to each house in the same quarter.

Is this all? By no means. The phonography of the future will be at the service of our grandchildren on all the occasions of life. Every restaurant-table will be provided with its phonographic collection; the public carriages, the waiting-rooms, the state — rooms of steamers, the halls and chambers of hotels will contain phonographotecks for the use of travellers. The railways will replace the parlor car by a sort of Pullman Circulating Library, which will cause travellers to forget the weariness of the way while leaving their eyes free to admire the landscapes through which they are passing.

I shall not undertake to enter into the technical details of the methods of operating these new interpreters of human thought, these multiplicators of human speech; but rest assured that books will be forsaken by all the dwellers upon this globe, and printing will absolutely pass out of use except for the service it may still be able to render to commerce and private relations; and even there the writing-machine, by that time fully developed, will probably suffice for all needs.

7 thoughts on “The end of print foretold

  1. Tom Panelas

    “Desuetude,” good word. You don’t hear it much today. Evidently the death throes of books have been long and sputtering. Good thing Woolf, Hemingway, Oates, Updike, Chabon, Kingsolver, and a few others managed to get their handiwork out the door before it ended once and for all.

  2. Deborah

    Having just returned from my local library, taxing my poor muscles by lugging two printed tomes back to my abode, I will most likely begin to over-utilize my “cerebral phosphates”, by reading them. I will try to find a comfortable place to do this exhausting behavior accompanied by a nice cuppa and a homemade cookie or two to fortify me against any physical harm.


  3. Charles

    Print will never die. As long as there are human beings, someone in some corner of the world, will be stamping out printed impressions of something or other.

    Some time ago, I was at the library of the local State Historical Society, examining some fragile printed works from the 1830s, when I began to wonder, what is the first known printed book in the state? It turns out to be a small pamphlet, the first known dictionary of some local Indian languages. It was printed around 1800 on a small letterpress by a field unit of the US Army, exploring the area to establish their first garrisoned outpost. Apparently a small Army unit was provisioned with a small letterpress, paper, and drawers of lead type as part of their essential military equipment.

    So think about that. The US Army, at the beginning of the Indian Wars, was sending rangefinder units into the field, equipped with guns and printing equipment.

  4. Scott Holloway

    In my childhood and teenage years, how did Mom respond when I just finished relating an amazing experience to her? “Write it down!” (That is my emphasis.)

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