The book that we know and trust, with printed paper pages and bound in any number of covers, began life around 1439 when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type.
The impact was immediate and long-lasting. Suddenly texts that could only be hand-copied in small numbers and circulated among a tightly controlled few could be reproduced by the hundreds and then the thousands and sold at affordable prices. Knowledge spread, and enabled the modern world – courtesy of the massively increased exchange and accessibility of ideas – and we had the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, science and education.
Before the Gutenberg press, much knowledge in Europe then was kept by the Roman Catholic Church. Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame imagines a group of bishops scoffing at the new technology, and convinced that it wouldn’t last, and worrying about the threat to them if ordinary people had access to books.
Almost 700 years later, we are living in another revolution of the book.
The catch with the printed books is they still cost a lot of money to edit and design properly, and distribute. They’re heavy. Books that haven’t been selling enough to make back that money have increasingly been missing out, even if they have good knowledge. Scholarly books, the product of original thought and research in a specialised field, have been dropping in sales down to an average of 350 world-wide by 2007.
The e-book has allowed scholarly books a renaissance and already many are being downloaded in the 10s of 1000s, by people who never would have had the chance to buy them. The new e-book readers are increasingly as reliable as a book in print, and being dynamic will challenge the old static printed page.
New technology starts off awkwardly, and it’s easy for the scoffers to mock it. The iPads and the Kindles and so on are just that awkward start. In the West, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment enabled democracies, and individual rights such as had never been conceived possible. The e-book, and the accompanying shorter means of communication such as twitter, facebook, email, texts and instant messaging, is surely the dawn of a new era which we cannot yet even guess at.