Shift in technology or the death of the book?

This semester, your CUPID Associates Dannie, Alexa, and I, have organized themed weeks. During these weeks, we will blog posts that correspond with this theme, as well as a guest post or two from other Elon students. This week is Publishing Week!

An illuminated manuscript from ENG 311.

An illuminated manuscript from ENG 311.

This Winter Term, I took ENG 311: Publishing. For the first two weeks of class, we engaged in a manuscript project. At first, many of us were confused – why were we being given construction paper and told to bring markers into an upper level English class? Noticing our stress, RPR kindly gave us some insight into the mystery project – we were beginning our manuscript project, and this project was going to occur in several steps, with each step representing a shift in book history and the corresponding new technologies.

The cover of a final illuminated manuscript from ENG 311.

The cover of a final illuminated manuscript from ENG 311.

At the start of the shift from oral to manuscript culture, writing did not exist as it does today. There was not a formalized alphabet even within societies, there was little consistency in writing, and punctuation as we know it – paragraph breaks, periods, dashes – had yet to be created. This was reflected in our project. Our treatises were written with no punctuation on paper taped together to symbolize scrolls.

The next day, we became commenters rather than scribes, and jotted down our own notes along the sides of the treatises, which had been torn battered over the “centuries.” The following day we became compilers and had the job of utilizing new technologies – punctuation, finally! – as well as combining the previous day’s commentary with the original author’s thoughts. Finally, we created illuminated manuscripts, which were more creative and visually appealing (for more examples, view medieval illuminated manuscripts on images).

This project was so important because it showed us rather than simply telling us that book technology is always shifting – as much as we liked to freak out about the “switch” from print books to e-books and other technological advancements, as is discussed in the video below, we need to recognize that writing has been shifting from day one. Just as we no longer rely on tying knots and papyrus to communicate, and thankfully have punctuation and paper, we no longer rely solely on print.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmRlNXrmFMM

Still, those of us concerned about the disappearance of print books can be comforted by Finkelstein and McCleery, authors of the ENG 311 textbook, An Introduction to Book History, who assure us that print texts have been around for a while, and don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. F&M confidently call the idea that we are moving toward the death of the book a “rumor,” and if I’m going to believe anyone about the future of the book, it’s going to be people who know about the past – and the present – of the text.

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