The eunuch’s children


1. Pulp Fact

Gutenberg we know. But what of the eunuch Cai Lun?

A well-educated, studious young man, a close aide to the Emperor Hedi in the Chinese imperial court of the Eastern Han Dynasty, Cai invented paper one fateful day in the year 105. At the time, writing and drawing were done primarily on silk, which was elegant but expensive, or on bamboo, which was sturdy but cumbersome. Seeking a more practical alternative, Cai came up with the idea of mashing bits of tree bark and hemp fiber together in a little water, pounding the resulting paste flat with a stone mortar, and then letting it dry into sheets in the sun. The experiment was a success. Allowing for a few industrial tweaks, Cai’s method is still pretty much the way paper gets made today.

Cai killed himself some years later, having become entangled in a palace scandal from which he saw no exit. But his invention took on a life of its own. The craft of papermaking spread quickly throughout China and then, following the Silk Road westward, made its way into Persia, Arabia, and Europe. Within a few centuries, paper had replaced animal skins, papyrus mats, and wooden tablets as the world’s preferred medium for writing and reading. The goldsmith Gutenberg would, with his creation of the printing press around 1450, mechanize the work of the scribe, replacing inky fingers with inky machines, but it was Cai Lun who gave us our reading material and, some would say, our world.

2. Peak Paper

Paper may be the single most versatile invention in history, its uses extending from the artistic to the bureaucratic to the hygienic. Rarely, though, do we give it its due. The ubiquity and disposability of the stuff — the average American goes through a quarter ton of it every year — lead us to take it for granted, or even to resent it. It’s hard to respect something that you’re forever throwing in the trash or flushing down the john or blowing your nose into. But modern life is inconceivable without paper. If paper were to disappear, writes Ian Sansom in his recent book Paper: An Elegy, “Everything would be lost.”

But wait. “An elegy”? Sansom’s subtitle is half joking, but it’s half serious, too. For while paper will be around as long as we’re around, with the digital computer we have at last come up with an invention to rival Cai Lun’s. Over the last decade, annual per-capita paper consumption in developed countries has fallen sharply. If the initial arrival of the personal computer and its companion printer had us tearing through more reams than ever, the rise of the internet as a universal communication system seems to be having the opposite effect. As more and more information comes to be stored and exchanged electronically, we’re writing fewer checks, sending fewer letters, circulating fewer reports, and in general committing fewer thoughts to paper. Even our love notes are passed between servers.

In 1894, Scribner’s Magazine published an essay by the French litterateur Octave Uzanne titled “The End of Books.” Thomas Edison had just invented the phonograph, and Uzanne thought it inevitable that books and periodicals would soon be replaced by “various devices for registering sound” that people would carry around with them. Flipping through printed sheets of paper demanded far too much effort from the modern “man of leisure,” he argued. “Reading, as we practice 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.” The printing press and its quaint products were no match for modern technology.


You have to hand it to Uzanne. He anticipated the arrival of the audiobook, the iPod, and even the smartphone. About the obsolescence of the printed page, however, he was entirely wrong. Yet his prophesy would enjoy continuing popularity among the intelligentsia. It would come to be repeated over and over again during the twentieth century. Every time a new communication medium came along — radio, telephone, cinema, TV, CD-ROM — pundits would send out, usually in printed form, another death notice for the press. H. G. Wells wrote a book proclaiming that microfilm would replace the book.

In 2011, the Edinburgh International Book Festival featured a session titled — why mess with a winner? — “The End of Books.” One of the participants, the Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison, declared that “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books.” Baby boomers, it seemed obvious to Morrison, would be the last generation to read words inked on pages. The future of the book and the magazine and the newspaper — the future of the word — lay in “e-publishing.” The argument seemed entirely reasonable at the time. Unlike Uzanne, who was merely speculating, Morrison could point to hard facts about trends in reading and publishing. People were flocking to the screen. Paper was toast.

Now, just three years later, the picture has grown blurrier. There are new facts, equally hard, which suggest that words will continue to appear on sheets of paper for a good long while. Ebook sales, which skyrocketed after the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007, have fallen back to earth in recent months, and sales of physical books have remained surprisingly resilient. Printed books still account for about three-quarters of overall book sales in the United States, and if sales of used books, which have been booming, are taken into account, that percentage probably rises even higher. A recent survey revealed that even the biggest fans of e-books continue to purchase a lot of printed volumes.

Periodicals have had a harder go of it, thanks to the profusion of free alternatives online and the steep declines in print advertising. But subscriptions to print magazines seem to be stabilizing. Although some publications are struggling to survive, others are holding on to their readers. Digital subscriptions, while growing smartly, still represent only a tiny slice of the market, and a lot of magazine readers don’t seem eager to switch to e-versions. A survey of owners of iPads and other tablet computers, conducted last year, found that three-quarters of them still prefer to read magazines on paper. There are even some glimmers in the beleaguered newspaper business. The spread of paywalls and the bundling of print and digital subscriptions appear to be tempering the long-term decline in print circulation. A few major papers have even gained some print readers of late.

What’s striking is that the prospects for print have improved even as the use of media-friendly mobile computers and apps has exploded. If physical publications were dying, you would think their condition should be deteriorating rapidly now, not stabilizing.

3. Embodied Words

Our eyes tell us that the words and pictures on a screen are pretty much identical to the words and pictures on a piece of paper. But our eyes lie. What we’re learning now is that reading is a bodily activity. We take in information the way we experience the world — as much with our sense of touch as with our sense of sight. Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects, a reflection of the fact that our minds evolved to perceive things, not symbols of things.

The differences between page and screen go beyond the simple tactile pleasures of good paper stock. To the human mind, a sequence of pages bound together into a physical object is very different from a flat screen that displays only a single “page” of information at a time. The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. Even though we don’t realize it consciously, we quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space. If you’ve ever picked up a book you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon. When we hold a physical publication in our hands, we also hold its contents in our mind.

The spatial memories seem to translate into more immersive reading and stronger comprehension. A recent experiment conducted with young readers in Norway found that, with both expository and narrative works, people who read from pages understood the text better than those who read the same material on a screen. The findings are consistent with a series of other recent reading studies. “We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension,” wrote the Norwegian researchers. They suggested that the ability of print readers to “see as well as tactilely feel the spatial extension and physical dimensions” of an entire text likely played a role in their superior comprehension.

That may also explain why surveys in the United States and other countries show that college students continue to prefer printed textbooks over electronic ones by wide margins. Students say that traditional books are more flexible as study tools, encourage deeper and more attentive reading, and promote better understanding and retention of the material. It seems to be true, as Octave Uzanne suggested, that reading printed publications consumes a lot of “cerebral phosphates.” But maybe that’s something to be celebrated.

Electronic books and periodicals have advantages of their own, of course. They’re convenient. They often provide links to other relevant publications. Their contents can be searched and shared easily. They can include animations, audio and video snippets, and interactive features. They can be updated on the fly. When it comes to brief news reports or other simple stories, or works that we just want to glance at rather than read carefully, electronic versions may well be superior to printed ones.

We were probably mistaken to think of electronic publications as substitutes for printed ones. They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences. Some readers may continue to prefer print, others may develop a particular taste for the digital, and still others may happily switch back and forth between the two forms. This year in the United States, some two billion books and 350 million magazines will roll off presses and into people’s hands. We are still Cai Lun’s children.

This essay appeared originally, in a slightly different form, in the journal NautilusImages: postage stamp commemorating Cai Lun, issued in China in 1962; illustration from 1894 article “The End of Books.”

10 thoughts on “The eunuch’s children

  1. Nathan Sweet

    I have to agree. As an early adopter of the ebook, I’ve found that the only genre that seems to work well on it is the short novel. I tried reading a textbook on my kindle, but I ended buying the same book in paper-form.

    I’ve also tried reading some epic length works of fiction on the kindle (Game of Thrones and one very long history book), and I can’t do it anymore. I’ve definitely noticed that I’ve retained more of the Game of Thrones titles that I’ve read in book form. I’m constantly going back to “A Feast for Crows” (the one title in the series I read on the kindle) to jog my memory as I’m reading the lastest released title.

  2. Charles

    I just finished a temp job processing scantron forms for educational testing. I estimate I personally handled about a million individual sheets of paper. I am used to handling bulk data on paper after working on my local Elections Board, counting ballots by hand and riffling through sheets during recounts. And then there are my years working in printing, I can fan through a stack of printing to check the registration marks and color shifts during the run. So I know all the tricks. I can fan the sheets a certain way, bend them back at an angle that is maximized for the stiffness of that weight of paper, and riffle the pages past like a flip book, looking to catch the sheets where someone didn’t write their name or fill in a specific bubble. I am about the only person in the office that knows these tricks, nobody understands how I handle about ten times the paper anyone else does.

    I got on this temp gig and never realized before how much manual labor it took just to get the forms prepared for scanning. Mostly I do scoring of written tests after they are scanned. We’re gradually switching to all-computer tests, because they spend an immense amount of money shipping paper all over, they think computer testing will save a ton of money. But they announced they will always have paper tests, for students with disabilities who can’t work with computers.

    The first time I worked with computer-based tests, I was surprised. During a test run, about half the responses were on paper, half on the computer, so we could compare the results. The handwritten answers to math tests usually are full of diagrams plotted on graph paper, or complex notations. I asked one of the test developers, when a student demonstrates facility with writing a specific math notation, is that usually an indicator of higher level understanding of the concepts? He said usually it does, but not always. However, I noticed the kids doing the tests on computer sometimes had difficulty figuring out how to do the most basic computer notation by typing it on a keyboard. It completely strips away my ability to judge how well they can use the notation. Some kids don’t even know basic computer notation like x^2 for x squared. So it is possible that some tests might have to be written so that kids can express it through typewriting, rather than the rich math notation.

    I was a little surprised after working in publishing for so many years, to suddenly find myself on an entirely different end of the paper world. Lately I handle almost nothing that is mass produced on paper. To me, it is a recording medium for individuals.

    I am reminded of a joke by a local comedian. He asked the question, if computers have so much memory, how come everybody has little post-it notes stuck on their monitors? He said that computers get all their memory by sucking it right out of our brain, the longer you stare at a screen, the less you remember. So if you want to remember something, you better write it down.

  3. yt75

    For me what is missingis the ability to buy “website for life”, and perhaps more for dictionnaries, encyclopedia kind of things, complete works (as much for the search ability as for reading them).
    But this would require a clear separation between “who holds your list of bought references”, and the ones editing/selling them. That Amz takes care of both you bookshelf and is also the shop is a major show stopper. “ebooks” obviously have to get out of the “file approach” but this means taking the “buying a reference” very seriously.

  4. Daniel

    I tend to agree about e-readers being good for mostly short fiction. When I got one, it was mostly to take advantage of the large amounts of free ebooks floating on the net, but I’ve found I hate using it for anything I want to take notes on, flip through or do research in. That’s not to even go into the frequent formatting issues that often make the whole thing more trouble than it’s worth, or the proprietary issues that come with buying a kindle book from amazon.

    The visible, physical presence of books on my shelf here is a useful feature of outsourced memory in the form of paper that’s lost by storing ebooks in an invisible data bank where they are out of sight and out of mind. I read a lot of nonfiction, and anything I can do to aid my retention of and access to that information is crucial. Every time I see them and am reminded, even for a moment, of what I read, it helps me keep that knowledge available going forward.

    I went to the library’s used bookstore yesterday and got 4 paperbacks for $8, then came home and began reading and writing in them within about ten minutes. No issues with buying, managing or formatting a device. No doubt about who now owns these books, and who can sell or lend them. No cumbersome touchscreen typing or trying to figure out how to search for a passage I can’t get to by key words. I guess I missed out on being able download them in just a minute or two, but truth be told, any task that gets me out of the office chair these days deserves to be preserved.

  5. Marie

    So true about better retention when you read a paper book. When I look at my Kindle “library” I struggle to remember what each book was about. When I read on a device, I usually can’t tell anyone the name of the book I am reading, or the author, because I don’t see the name, or an enticing cover, every time I pick it up to read. And I can’t lend my digital books to anyone I love. I am a book tosser: if I didn’t like a book I stop reading it and obliterate it from my life. Hard to do with Kindle and iBooks. They continue to lurk in the clouds. And oh the shame when somebody looked at my electronic library, to have them read, with much mocking laughter, the Danielle Steele I bought for my mother in law when she was bedridden. The damn thing is still there.

    I am now, compelled by another Browser article, buying a facsimile edition of Webster’s dictionary. A whole book, horrendously expensive, but the joy of being led from word to word without clicking, waiting for websites,
    advertisements. And, joy of joys, I don’t have to register to get it or access it. I don’t have to remember a password. I can hold it warmly in my hands and remember each bit of bullion it delivers.

  6. KarenE

    So this explains/confirms why I am perfectly happy reading novels on my Kobo, but still buy my ‘serious’ books, mostly non-fiction, in paper.

    The e-reader is hugely advantageous to me simply for its weight, the chance to have several books on the go at one time, all with me, or to finish one and start another on that subway ride. Plus the books are cheaper, and I can get many so quickly and for free through my library’s site.

    But for the stuff that requires a lot of thought, and going back to re-read or check things, or flipping back to the timeline or map … Paper still wins the day. Just have to keep them at home, and work through slowly, while carrying the novels around for the subway ride!

  7. David

    The human mind can only abstract so much. I believe our relationship with music suffered when music became dissociated with an object, like an LP, Cassette or CD. I can think of no better way to visit another age than to open a book that was printed in it. Like the clear images on Cretan pottery, you are seeing the very thing which was seen in a distant time.

    I have heard that test takers do better when tested in the room they were taught in. Memories are often connected to a place or a thing. Take away the connection to the object, and the memory itself becomes less real and less fixed.

  8. Juliet Moore

    I agree with all the comments and the article. Additionally i find with the ereader that my learned behaviour of skimming electronic information cannot be switched off! I skim the pages through too quickly rather than actually taking in the information/story in a thorough way.
    I still use my ereader when i am travelling, but have pretty much given up on it for anything else.
    Further it is nice to switch off from a screen!

  9. James

    I absolutely agree with the concept that retention is much stronger when the material is printed rather than electronic. Whenever I had to write essays at university, I would print all of the articles I was going to reference in my essay, as I found it much easier to locate the sections I wished to reference in a hard copy. I also print documents which need to be proof-read, as I find that reading an essay on paper will invariably uncover errors which went unnoticed on the screen.

  10. Brett Turner

    Working as a research lawyer, the transition from reading law from books to digital form was seamless. I have read some serious nonfiction in digital form, e.g., many of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s naval histories which are generally out of print, and felt like I retained the substance about the same as in physical book form.

    But the eBook isn’t going to take over until the intellectual property issues get settled. I don’t want to lease the text until Google or Amazon or someone decides, Big-Brother style, to delete it. When I buy something, I want to *own* it. Until eBooks give readers the same bundle of legal rights as physical books, physical books aren’t going anywhere.

Comments are closed.