I started a new book last night, The Case for Books by Robert Darnton. I was amused by a long quote in the introduction. It is a letter from Niccolò Perotti to Francesco Guarnerio in 1471, less than 20 years after Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press.
“My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany. In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year….It was for this reason that I was led to hope that within a short time we should have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn’t be a single work which could not be procured because of lack of means or scarcity….Yet—oh false and all too human thoughts—I see that things turned out quite differently from what I had hoped. Because now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books. And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.”
It reminded me of this comic on XKCD.
It seems that as long as there has been technological innovation, there have been people bemoaning it, though this is not to suggest that there have not been legitimate concerns as new technologies have arisen. I wonder what Niccolò would have said about WordPress or Twitter. C.S. Lewis did not care for fountain pens, but preferred dip pens because they slowed his writing down. It seems people either long after the latest tool or prefer to use that which they have used all along.
I’m not entirely sure which camp I fall into. I write these posts directly on the computer. I like to be able to type, as it is the fastest way I have of getting words from my head onto a screen or paper. Yet I really enjoy writing with my fountain pen. The extra step of writing longhand and then typing seems unnecessary, though.
I appreciate the growing research that suggests that students remember better when they take notes with pen and paper and not by typing. But for content creation, I presumably already know the material. Only when learning new material is a more deliberate approach beneficial. I do pause often when writing, even on a keyboard. It takes time to develop sentences and decide the best way to link thoughts.
I wonder how we could flatten publishing any further. Anyone with an internet account can create a free blog on several sites and share their thoughts on any subject with anyone who searches for their thoughts. It’s not quite that simple, though, because search engines are increasingly driven to point users to certain sites. But, it has come a long way from the cost of the printing press.