The Agent of Change, the Barbarian

Richard Nash at the Virginia Quarterly Review has a long piece that is ostensibly about the business of literature, but really gets at the heart of what the book means to civilization. I just loved it.
The two bits I’ll highlight have to do with the book’s resilience as a piece of both technology and culture.

. . . almost one hundred years ago . . . the book [was] beginning to achieve what most technology will never accomplish—the ability to disappear. Walk into the reading room of the New York Public Library and what do you see? Laptops. Books, like the tables and chairs, have receded into the backdrop of human life. This has nothing to do with the assertion that the book is counter-technology, but that the book is a technology so pervasive, so frequently iterated and innovated upon, so worn and polished by centuries of human contact, that it reaches the status of Nature.

Like the air we breathe, necessary yet almost forgotten about.

But not only is the book (and not just the physical codex, but the package of text content regardless of whether it’s digital or paper) part and parcel of our culture, but it remains a power source for the generation of all other forms culture and technology. It is not an artifact of the conservative, but a tool for progress and radicalism.

A business born out of the invention of mechanical reproduction transforms and transcends the very circumstances of its inception, and again has the potential to continue to transform and transcend itself—to disrupt industries like education, to drive the movie industry, to empower the gaming industry. Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian.

I’ll save the last sentence for those who read the original. I hate spoilers.

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