Will the Book Survive Dark Age America?

by: EJ on 08/19/2016

Today’s blog is an excerpt from the newly released Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead by John Michael Greer. Greer draws some comfort from the knowledge that our species has managed to invent several durable technologies that have stood the test of time.  Among these, he lists the book. As a publisher, this is a pleasing thought.

One [technology] in particular, though, plays an important role in my own hopes for the future, not least because I work with it every day: the technology of the book.

Tale of Genji

One volume on my bookshelf right now makes as good an example as any. It’s an English translation of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s first and greatest novels. It was written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, at the beginning of the eleventh century for a circle of friends, and it wove together her wry reflections on court life with a sense of the impermanence of all earthly things. Like so many novels of an earlier age, it demands more patience than most of today’s readers like to give to fiction; it unfolds at a leisurely pace, following the path of its decidedly unheroic hero, Prince Genji, through the social milieu of his time. Think of it as War and Peace without the war: the political struggles that frame Genji’s career, sending him from the capital into exile and then returning him to the upper reaches of power, all take place without a hint of violence.

This is all the more striking because the society in which Murasaki lived was well on its way to a violent decline and fall. Her lifetime marked the zenith of the age Japanese historians call the Heian period. Over the next century and a half, the Japanese economy came apart, public order disintegrated in a rising spiral of violence, and the government lost control of the provinces where the new samurai class was taking shape. The civil wars that began in 1156 shredded what was left of Heian society and plunged Japan into a dark age four and a half centuries long.

Countless cultural treasures vanished during those years, but The Tale of Genji was not among them. One of the advantages of books is that, properly made, they are extremely durable; another is that they have very little value as plunder, and so tend to get left behind when looters come through. Both these advantages worked in favor of Murasaki’s novel, and so did the patient efforts of generations of Buddhist monks and nuns who did for their culture what their equivalents in Dark Age Europe did a few centuries earlier.

Tao Te Ching

It’s not the only volume on my bookshelves that came through the fall of a civilization intact. A good shelf and a half of Greek philosophy and mathematics hid out in Irish monasteries and Arab libraries while Rome crashed to ruin and nomads fought over the rubble, and so did literary works from Greece and Rome, including a couple — Homer comes to mind  — that came out of the dark ages before Greece and Rome, and so get extra credit. The Chinese classics on another shelf went through more than that. Chinese civilization has immense staying power, but its political systems tend to be fragile, and such seasoned survivors as Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching have shrugged off half a dozen cycles of decline and fall.

Epic of Gilgamesh

Still, the granddaddy of them all is next to the Greek classics. The Epic of Gilgamesh was first composed well over five thousand years ago by some forgotten poet of Sumer, the oldest literate society anybody has yet been able to find. It’s not something most people read in school, which is ironic, because the epic of Gilgamesh is the kind of story we most need to read these days: a story about limits. When he first strides into the story, Gilgamesh is about as far from Prince Genji as a fictional character can get. Superhumanly strong, with an ego to match, he makes Conan the Barbarian look like Caspar Milquetoast, but his ego sends him on a long journey through love, loss, and a shattering confrontation with the human condition that leaves little of his arrogance intact. It’s a story well worth reading even, or especially, today.

The astonishing thing, at least to me, is that I can take that book from its place on the shelf today and take in a story that had readers enthralled five thousand years ago. Precious little else from Sumer survives at all. Five thousand years is a long time, especially in a corner of the world where more civilizations have risen and fallen than just about anywhere else. That’s what I mean about the durability of books as a technology of information storage and transfer. Even though individual books break down over time, it costs little to manufacture them and little except time to copy them, and they weather copying mistakes remarkably well. Unlike today’s data storage methods, where a very small number of mistakes can render data hopelessly corrupt, a book can still pass on its meaning even when the copy is riddled with scribal errors.

All this bears directly on the shape of the deindustrial dark age ahead of us. Our age will certainly leave its share of legacies to the far future, but as already noted, most of those are the opposite of helpful. Of our positive achievements, on the other hand, the ones most likely to reach our descendants five thousand years from now are the ones written in books.

letterpress

Thus I’d like to suggest that books, and the technologies that produce and preserve them, might well deserve a place well up on the list of useful things that need to be preserved through the long decline ahead of us. I wish it made sense to count on public libraries, but those venerable institutions have gotten the short end of the stick now for decades, and the dire fiscal straits faced by most state and local governments in the US now do not bode well for their survival. Like so many other things of value, book technology may have to be saved by individuals and local voluntary groups, using their own time and limited resources. It might come down to copying books with pen and ink onto handmade paper, but there may well be another viable option. Letterpress technology is simple enough to make and maintain — the presses that sparked a communications revolution in Europe in the fourteenth century were built entirely with hand tools — and brings with it the power to produce a thousand copies of a book in the time a good scribe would need to produce one. With printing presses, something like the book culture of colonial America, complete with local bookstores, libraries open to anyone willing to pay a modest subscription, and private book collections, comes within reach, at least in regions that maintain some level of stability and public order. This may not seem like much in an age of internet downloads, but it beats the stuffing out of Dark Age Europe, when most people could count on living out their lives without turning the pages of a book.

This principle isn’t limited to books, of course. The sort of local, decentralized approach to the survival of book technology suggested here is a template for the kind of strategy that could work for many other things as well. Five points that might help guide such projects come to mind.

 

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