Close your eyes and visualise this:
Almost six thousand years ago, in Sumer, there was a highly intelligent student who was bent on annoying his teacher. Said teacher was bent on forming said student into a compliant-yet-educated human being. One morning, fresh from a good night’s sleep, the teacher had an idea. “You are one of the ten people who are able to write. Write something about the all-night town hall meeting,” the teacher ordered. “Do not make rude comments about the mayor’s weight or slack facial expression.”
The student glared at his teacher, but then his face lit up like a not-yet-proverbial Christmas tree. “Sure.”
The teacher thought an improper thought.
The shadows shortened imperceptibly, then perceptibly. The student had filled most of his clay tablet. “I need another one.”
“Turn it over and use the other side. Waste not, want not.”
The shadows shortened down to almost nothing. The teacher was getting hungry for his midday meal.
“Now, I definitely need another tablet,” the student asserted.
The teacher sighed as he handed over another block of clay.
The shadows began to lengthen.
When the shadow of the teacher’s hooked nose was getting longer than his actual nose, the student finally stabbed his reed into the tablet to create an indisputable final stop. He stacked his tablets in a certain way and handed them to the teacher.
“Read them in that order. Ciao, dude.”
The teacher had, unintentionally, orchestrated the creation of the first book. It was an account of the town hall meeting, as instructed. The student had even recounted the Modest Proposals of Mary Hynes (which would later be thieved by some twisted Irishman who thought he wouldn’t get caught).
The teacher had a lot of reading to do. The oral-story tellers were pissed. They organised an oral petition. It was sad that none of them could remember whether the guy who lived at the edge of town was called Nin-unumun-ki-ag or Nin-nunum-ka-ig, because they couldn’t count him in the petition and so the officials said they didn’t have enough names to make it worthwhile.
Two thousand years later, the same thing happened again. (Teachers will never learn.) This time, however, the student had so much to say that he wasn’t going to be able to carry around all the clay tablets. He found a really long piece of papyrus and some ink. This was the first scroll.
The clay-tablet writers organised a very heavy petition. They considered picketing but decided it would be too much like work.
A few years after that, some poor scribe in China got these instructions: Make it good, make it long, and make it flat so it doesn’t get messed up in my suitcase.
And the first tree-book was born.
The people who made hard cases for carrying scrolls picketed.
Later, the same innovative scribe got tired of all the instructions and created moveable type printing. He was a smart dude. But he used wood instead of metal, so all the kudos went to the wood carver, instead.
The other scribes just chewed on the ends of their reeds. But they were also pissed. Someone quietly made the first pamphlet and left it on an official’s desk.
Gutenberg was a thief. We don’t talk about him.
I have tried to find statistics which show many people died when phototypesetting took over the letterpress. They are currently unavailable.
I love bookstores. Especially second-hand ones because they smell so good. I also like independent bookstores because they tend to have things that are harder to find: little gems from local writers or things that aren’t mainstream. Large chain bookstores are okay, but I could live without them.
I don’t want to see bookstores go away. I don’t want tree-books to go away. But neither of these things will stop me from taking on a new form of printing.
It’s kind of cool to think that I get to be part of a lot of “firsts”. While I missed the first telephone, the first radio, the first television, I got to be around for the first computers, the first e-mails, the cds. And now I not only get to be around for the first ebooks but I also get to write one.
I’m part of a movement. How’s that for awesome?
Fret not: time is circular as well as linear. There will be a renaissance and we’ll all make handwritten scrolls again, just so that we remember to keep the old as well as the new. And from that renaissance we will create a new type of book that combines the best parts of ebooks and the best parts of tree-books.
P.S. If you’re able to read and comprehend the words oral-story teller, clay tablet, scroll, manuscript and book, then my point is made; if you can’t read these words or understand them, then I concede the point. Congratulations.