The Future of the Book

Geoffrey Nunberg, ed.
With an Afterword by Umberto Eco
University of California Press, 1996
306 pages, with references
Cloth: US$45.00, ISBN 0-520-20450-6
Paper: US$14.95, ISBN 0-520-20451-4

Reviewed by Lee Honeycutt (

"Ceci tuera cela" --

The above words, proclaimed by the archdeacon Frollo at the end of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, have become the rallying cry for a host of prognosticating digerati. The phrase--"This will kill that"--supposedly describes the fate of incarnate texts in what is often called "The Late Age of Print." As sure as the sun rises tomorrow, we are told, digital technology will destroy the printed word.

The belief that physical print is doomed to the ash heap of history is complicated and countered to a large degree in The Future of the Book, a collection of essays edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, professor of linguistics at Stanford University and research scientist at Xerox Palo Alto Research. These essays, which stem from a 1994 conference held at the Center for Semiotic and Cognitive Studies at the University of San Marino, all focus on the titular question raised by Patrizia Violi in the preface--"What is the future of the book in this new era, as the end of the millennium approaches?"

This question is debated by a variety of authors, including the familiar hypertextual triumvirate of George Landow, Jay David Bolter, and Michael Joyce, whose contributions represent some of the volume's most interesting arguments for technological enthusiasm, though they have reservations, to be sure. For example, Landow spends much of his time in "Twenty Minutes into the Future" questioning our culture's treasured assumptions about the book as cultural icon. Yet he ends the piece with speculations about the risks we encounter "when we increasingly abandon alphanumeric text" (234). Joyce's chapter uses the Czeslaw Milosz poem "A Book in the Ruins" as a focal point upon which to poetically contemplate the interplay between books and electronic texts and the foundations of virtual reality.

The Primacy of the Visual

While Landow and Joyce's chapters are excellent, Bolter's is the best of the three and demonstrates how a reversal of the ancient device of ekphrasis--textual description of a visual scene -- is permeating the world of print as a response to the graphic wonders of digital technology. As Bolter puts it, "Rather than defining a new orality, as McLuhan and Ong predicted, electronic technology seems to me to be moving us toward an increasing dependence upon and interest in the visual" (270).

If only such an increasing interest in the visual were evident in this book. Landow's and Bolter's chapters are the only ones that take advantage of graphic advances in print technology, and many of the images in these chapters are badly reproduced screen captures that have pixelated in some instances to the point of illegibility. It's a shame that the University of California Press didn't allocate two hours of a graphic artist's time to cleaning up these images prior to press.

This lack of graphic attention reaches absurd proportions in Luca Toschi's chapter entitled "Hypertext and Authorship," where the author spends an inordinate number of pages describing the illustrations in an 1840 revised edition of the Italian novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Nowhere in this sustained ekphrasis is a single image to be found, which is especially confusing in light of the fact that Toschi lambasts Italian publishers for removing the illustrations from recent printings of the novel, a move that Toschi calls a "persistent prejudiced perspective which sees illustrations as being either only fit for children or else as secondary to the written word" (178). When reading this chapter, one longs for even the simplest illustration to accompany the text, proving Bolter's point that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Via Media

Still, The Future of the Book is an academic tome written in an abstract scholarly style that hasn't traditionally seen a need for illustrations. For this reason, perhaps we should forgive such graphic omissions. In fact, many see print's support of abstract reasoning as its greatest power, one that will ensure its survival well into the next millennium. And in The Future of the Book, there is a great deal of wonderful abstraction that serves to complicate and enlighten recent discourse about the future of print-based literacy in the digital age.

As Geoffrey Nunberg states in the introduction, predictions about the death of the book have been exaggerated for a number of reasons. That such predictions are premature is evidenced all around us by the prevalence of such book store mega-chains as Borders and Barnes & Nobles, which are amassing huge profits from the public's desire for tangible forms of the written word. But as Carla Hesse observes in "Books in Time," the new technologies indeed have wrought changes in the temporality of the printed word, changing it from a fixed form to one more attuned to an "immediate present."

One of the more poignant chapters in this collection is University of Pennsylvania professor James J. O'Donnell's "The Pragmatics of the New: Trithemius, McLuhan, Cassiodorus." In this essay, O'Donnell highlights the indecision of fifteenth century Benedictine Abbot Johannes Trithemius regarding the virtues of manuscript and/or print and contrasts it with the sometimes erratic prophesies of Canadian digital seer Marshall McLuhan. As a via media between these two polar opposites, O'Donnell introduces the figure of Cassiodorus, a fifth century Roman statesman who retired to his rural estate and founded a monastic scriptorium to preserve certain textual treasures amid social upheaval. As O'Donnell explains, Cassiodorus' actual legacy hasn't lived up to his historical persona, but he still can serve as a model for our own transitional age:

I have come to see that this deflated savior of western civilization...had nevertheless had the right idea. He did not despise the new, but used it wholeheartedly; he did not reject older social institutions, but found new ways to adapt them, and when thwarted one way, found another, odder but still functional way to use them; and he did not tarry to prophesy a new age of learning and wisdom. Most of all, he did things.... I suggest that Trithemius makes a good patron saint for our conservatives, and McLuhan an equally good patron saint of our theoreticians. In Cassiodorus, I would rather find not a patron saint, but a colleague, a practitioner who innovated, failed, innovated again... (51-52)

If such a middle path can be found in our digital age, perhaps glimpses of it can be seen in Paul Duguid's chapter entitled "Material Matters: The Past and Futurology of the Book." In this essay, Duguid challenges some of the most cherished notions of postmodern hypertextual theory and examines what he considers to be two primary tropes of futurology--supersession and liberation. It's an interesting read and one guaranteed to temper the enthusiasms of even the most committed liberation technologist.

The Survival of the Book

So if the book is to survive as cultural artifact, how will it do so in the face of rapidly expanding digital technologies? In his essay "Farewell to the Information Age," Geoffrey Nunberg suggests that print will survive by continuing to serve one of its primary functions as a public forum, while electronic technologies will support more private forms of discourse. It's an entertaining idea, but Nunberg's position doesn't explain how some public print forums -- such as newspapers -- are quickly moving into the digital realm (though with mixed results). Nor does it address increasing specialization in the world of print, where books and magazines dedicated to arcane hobbies and interests abound.

Perhaps, as Régis Debray suggests, the book will survive because it has served these many centuries as a symbolic object, anchoring in material form the values, hopes, and dreams of our culture(s). In contrast to a swirling digital soup that forever changes, perhaps the book will act as a fixed beacon of intellectual and spiritual surety, much as the Torah became an anchor for Jewish culture following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Or perhaps it will be superseded by a new form of literacy that Patrick Bazin refers to as metareading, though he believes the book "still has a bright future before it, since it has sufficiently demonstrated up to now its cognitive efficacy and robustness" (154). Still if the book does survive--and we have every reason to believe it will--it won't be your father's Oldsmobile, but will take on new forms and include new insertions, such as accompanying CD-ROMs. The book will survive, but will undoubtedly undergo what Raffaele Simone calls "a disarticulation of the body of the text."

In my personal digital library at home, I have a Voyager CD-ROM by Donald Norman called Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine, which contains--among other things--the complete text of three of Norman's popular books, none of which I had previously owned or read. I bought the CD-ROM about two years ago, and I've tried countless times to read these texts on-screen. But for some reason or another, I've never gotten very far with them, though I've used the CD numerous times to quickly look up phrases or ideas I saw cited in other works (or to see Norman dance around the screen explaining interface design).

It wasn't until last month, while on vacation in Washington state, that I actually read the entire text of one of these books, which I stumbled upon in material form in a second-hand bookstore and read on the plane back home. As most people can imagine, it was a different reading experience altogether and one that I'm not yet ready to surrender to digital form for reasons I can't quite articulate. I'm glad I've got the Voyager CD-ROM, for it gave me insights into Donald Norman and his work I couldn't have gotten from the printed text alone. But I'm also glad I found that book. I need both.

As Umberto Eco points out in the afterword, our notions of literacy are changing for various reasons and must begin to encompass various media while excluding none. We need every tool we can get our hands on to promote literacy in our students, and as The History of the Book aptly demonstrates, the printed word will be part of that mix for many years to come.

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