There is a meme out there about the power of books which shows a little girl standing on top of a big pile of books peeking over a high wall. She’s standing on the shoulder of giants not to see more and further, as Bernard de Chartres famously put it, but to see out, over the wall, where a world of fantasy and delight awaits.
Books are freedom. Reading is escaping.
This is nothing new. Books have long been associated with the mind’s ability to abscond the self from reality, to port and transport it across time and space, and to feed hope and renewal into the heart of the reader.
And when we think of books, it’s printed books we have in mind. (Apart from that coterie of scholars who only think of manuscript books when they think of books. But this post is not about them).
And we might be surprised to learn that the printed book is the opposite of the idea of liberation. For the printed book is, in fact, a delicate prison, a wallpapered dungeon.
The printed word slowed down and in some cases put an end to the evolution of the written word. In freehand manuscript, the word breathed under the living quill of the scribe. In print, the word turns to stone, to immovable ink, mighty but devoid of life. All subsequent letters and words are the same on the conveyor belt of the printer’s atelier.
Bound and wrapped up, all books resemble each other. To the messiness and endless variety of manuscript book types, the press opposes an orderly, high-precision yet low-variety dynasty of books. The fluidity of the handwritten word and the hand-bound page is guillotined by the machine.
Printed books are easily regulated for their production is easily controlled. Censorship makes little sense in a scribal culture, where books may be written and distributed on the fly. Pamphlets and flyers may help imagine what such a culture would look like. Pamphlets popping up everywhere. Flyers are difficult to stamp out because they are sitting right in between airy sounds and grounded words: flying words. And the words of a manuscript are precisely that, airborne, uncapturable, floating like pollen over our heads. Once captured, they are printed and locked up for good.