Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Have you read the book?

Right now, I am holding this book to be one of the most useful for understanding the modern world: "Divine Art, Infernal Machine" by Elizabeth Eisenstein.  The book's sub-title is "The Reception of the Printing Press in the West".  Add this book to the fact that some people are worried about the effect of the internet and constant connection and Facebook and YouTube and you can get a picture of human communication and the state of human knowledge.

You know that Socrates, that smart, inquisitive and thoughtful questioner, had strong doubts about the new (in his day) practice of what is called writing.  Later, you had thoughtful, bookish monks and others making notes and manuscripts of marks intended to remind and preserve.  Some people spent much time reading these preserved notes and quoted them from time to time, not always helpfully but often impressively.  Along comes Gutenberg, cited by some British historians as the most important figure in the last 1000 years, and his machine. It is not only the idea of moveable and reusable printing blocks, it is the social and commercial result. 

Walter Ong, Jesuit priest and scholar of technology has a paper on Latin as an adolescent rite, open only to males, of course.  While knowledge, saved and expanded by the Arab scholars, spread through Latin as a wide-spread language, science rears its head with Galileo and Bacon.  The Bible gets translated by Luther and Tyndale and others into people's native tongue.  The Americans begin universal public education so girls, too, can read.  Books of printed paper come to carry knowledge and ideas, poetry, diagrams, science and emotional material, as well as political, of course.  Reading and writing come to be seen as universal basic rights, not skills of specialists.

Well, yes, I read the book.  Oh, not that book, another one.  Well, it was a long time ago.  I am not sure about the title or the author but I know I read it.  Pass a quiz?  Answer a few questions?  I don't know. Give me a few minutes with a copy and I am sure I can refresh my memory.  Good!  I can download it.  Here are the passages marked often by readers.  Ok, now, I am ready to talk about what the book says, what seems to have been omitted, where it has helped me and where I doubt it or disagree with it.

Now, we have books actually flying (in digital form) through the atmosphere, literally.  Many can be plucked from the air, free or for nominal cost.  In 50 years or so, another Elizabeth Eisenstein will recount the worldwide reception of this new form of knowledge flow.

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