by Libby Sternberg
Note: This article was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2011 under the title “From Papyrus to Gutenberg to Kindle.” It has been updated for this blog.
When the Kindle and other e-readers first made inroads into the book market, they were treated with derision by steadfast lovers of DTBs (“dead tree books”). These readers value books as objects, not just as a means of communicating a story. Despite the Kindle’s popularity, some people still refuse to use them, loving the feel and smell of regular books. Perhaps some historical perspective can help these holdouts adjust to our new era, when electronic reading devices exist side by side with books as objects:
From a fifth-century A.D. Sumerian clay tablet discovered in the Euphrates delta, remarkably intact except for the salutation and signature:
“A thousand pardons for hitting young Jezebel in the head with my last note.
I am sure no one will notice the scar after it heals. You do keep your tent very dark; she will still find many suitors. (Editor’s note: It is unclear if the writer is saying “suitors” or “donkeys” here as the words are very similar in cuneiform.)
Please do not worry about the new papyrus we have heard so much talk of. The clay tablets we provide for the village elders are far more durable. They have a rich earthy smell and make for heft in one’s hands. Papyrus will never take the place of clay.
So confident am I that clay will never be replaced, that I have taken a loan from Old Fatima-mae to make some improvements to my tent. I will be able to pay it off quickly with the delivery of our next set of tablets.
But please stop using the clay to write down what you are calling ‘poems.’ It is a waste of precious material, my cousin. No one wants to read those when they can hear them round the fire at night.”
The following appears to be a clandestine letter written by an Egyptian scribe to his wife. Although the date is missing, experts peg its provenance somewhere between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D.:
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: Look at both ends of the scroll to see which one is the beginning of the story. It’s no wonder that Nanatu, the Story Seller, would not buy my latest effort. You presented him the scroll with the ending first!
And no, my dearest one, I refuse to try that product they are calling parchment. It is thin and one must use many separate sheets of it, which can easily become lost. If one scroll confuses you now, what will you do with many single pieces? I can see it clearly—parchment blowing every which way in the wind like the petals of a flower during a sandstorm, and you giving Nanatu one of my stories with half the pieces missing.
Nanatu is temperamental enough as it is. If I hear him say once more that he wants a story with a boat journey in it like the one that Homer fellow told, I will scream. Putting my stories on parchment will not make the difference; getting rid of the likes of Nanatu will.”
Fifteenth-century epistle from an older monk at an Alsatian monastery, Schwer-an-Bier, to another younger monk in a nearby German abbey:
“Please try harder to color within the lines, dear Frère Aefle. Your latest efforts were a strange mess of colors in odd cube-like forms that reminded me of images seen through shards of glass. But I must say at least it was better than the blurry pictures you did on the previous manuscript. That one created mere impressions, rather than a specific image. It made one feel as if one were viewing a landscape through wine-besotted eyes.
Abbot Pierre exclaimed after seeing it: Je vais chercher du bon vin à la cave. (Editor’s note: The loose translation for this phrase is: “Wine is good. Very good. Very, very good. Is it five o’clock somewhere?”) Such shoddy workmanship on your part will only feed the talk that our efforts are useless decoration and unnecessary toil, especially now that villagers are all in a fever over the printing machine you described.
Gutenberg, Schmutenberg, I say, Frère Aefle. Even your most pitiful illumination efforts are more vibrant than the cold black and white letters I’ve seen coming from his machine.
Rest assured, nothing will replace our artistic efforts. And even if Herr Schmutenburg’s device takes hold, I have been told by Friar Chuck that such ‘presses’ will still need laborers like us. He has devised a plan to work together with the Gutenbergs, something he is calling ‘the agency model,’ providing manuscripts to the presses for distribution. It is very complicated. But the important thing to remember, mon Frère, is to keep toiling away, perfecting your craft and trusting Friar Chuck and all the Abbots to look after us.”
Just as well-meaning scribes adjusted to papyrus and the printing press, so too have authors, publishers, readers and agents made the change to a publishing world where e-versions of books are now a must. The reading and publishing world marches onward. To paraphrase a famous playwright, “the story’s the thing,” not where or how you read it!
Libby Sternberg is a novelist whose books are available in print and on e-readers. Her latest novel, Fall from Grace, has been called a “novel for our times” by Midwest Book Review.