Readers, Writers, and Oystercatchers: Reflections on the Future of the Book

A photograph of an oystercatcher bird nesting“Books,” writes Robert Bringhurst, “are things that humans make, or try to make, as persistently as birds make nests, and we do it for similar reasons.” In the following essay, the author mulls the future of these “cultural universals” that manifest as both oral books and the codex form, whether print or digital.

The present and the past are full of facts, sometimes easy to ignore but not so easy to escape. The future is mostly full of fictions. Some of us, hoping to escape the inescapable past and present, find the fictions of the future attractive for that reason. But fiction, as we know, can shed a lot of light on clotted facts. It can do this so well that some of us think that’s what fiction is for.

Here’s a short (and entirely factual) vignette that bears upon this issue. In November 2022, a certain US politician, disgraced and out of office, formally announced that he would embark on another campaign. There were, of course, preliminary announcements of the announcement, to encourage media attention, and the media complied. And so, just before the event, a British journalist by the name of David Smith spoke on the phone with the Washington Post’s associate editor, Bob Woodward. To the best of my knowledge, Smith has no monastic training, but in talking with his colleague, he employed a standard Zen technique: he posed a kōan. That is to say, he asked a seemingly dumb, slightly off-kilter question, seeking an unguarded, unpremeditated, illuminating response. Smith’s kōan was “What’s going to happen?” To which Woodward (also not, so far as I know, a Buddhist monk) gave a proper Zen reply: “You can’t record the future.” Smith then supplied what is known in the Zen world as jakugo, a phrase that sums things up. “You can’t record the future, no,” he said, “but you can revisit the past.”1 That’s not what I would call cosmic enlightenment, but it’s a step in the right direction: an initial recognition that the future is reached through the past and the past through the present. We’re the knot in which they’re tied.

The stakes are higher—much higher—in the slow parade of literate civilization than in the apoplectic shouting match of current American politics, but the same restrictions apply: no crystal balls, no tarot cards, no oracles. In thinking about the future—of the book, or of anything else—all we have to work with are the present and the past.

Questions about the future are not, however, as casual and friendly as they once were. Our forefathers and foremothers could talk about the future—their own personal future or the future of their culture—without always having to ask at the same time whether humanity itself had any future. We have lost that luxury. One of the first things you realize when you contemplate cultural history is that civilizations are mortal. They all collapse sooner or later—but they don’t all take the planetary ecosystem with them when they go.


An illustration of an oystercatcher

One of the first things you realize when you contemplate cultural history is that civilizations are mortal.

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My own experience of books is, in most respects, the same as that of other readers and writers of my generation. My age-mates and I grew up in an analog world and have watched, with a wide spectrum of emotions, as that world grows more and more digital. We now read and write digital text, carry on digital conversations, listen to music in digital form, make and manipulate digital photographs, and consult the internet daily. To some of us, nevertheless, all that is digital smells of illusion. Benchmark reality—rocks and trees, rivers and mountains, tables and chairs, horses and dogs, ourselves and the people we know, the garden, the greenhouse, the forest—is outside the digital realm. By deduction as well as perception, real books belong to the realm of rocks and trees, not to the realm of pixels and megabytes. Like horses and dogs and tables and chairs, real books also require some physical care. Interacting with them—rereading, reshelving, and sometimes repairing—does something to confirm that both we and they are real.

Like horses and dogs and tables and chairs, real books also require some physical care.

In some respects, however, my personal dealings with books have been atypical. I was trained at an early age in both linguistics and typography. Before I knew it, these distinct skilled trades had, for me, merged into one. I’ve been actively involved, all my adult life, in designing, setting, and printing books, and in the clinical analysis of older printed books, as well as the more conventional business of reading, writing, and editing. I have carnal knowledge of printed books both old and new, and that knowledge is as deep in me, and precious, as carnal knowledge of other kinds. I’m also a lifelong student of oral literature. The most important typographic and editorial work I’ve done has involved translating oral books into printed ones.

“I made it out of a mouthful of air,” said a decidedly literate poet. Said is better than wrote in that sentence. Yeats, like many others, composed with his voice, then wrote his poems on paper and passed the paper along to a typist or a compositor. The more loquacious but equally literate Henry James liked to dictate directly to his typist, avoiding pen and paper altogether until it was time to correct the proofs. François Mandeville (1878–1952), on the other hand, was a skilled Chipewyan oral poet who had worked for many years as a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader and factor. He could read and write in several languages when he had to. The linguist Li Fang-kuei spent six weeks with him in 1928, transcribing a splendid book of Chipewyan oral narrative. Li noticed that Mandeville sometimes prepared for their daily dictation sessions by making brief notes in Chipewyan syllabic script on a scrap of paper. The notes weren’t stories or even sentences, just short lists of names or phrases: Mandeville’s reminders to himself of the order in which he had chosen to put certain episodes. Mandeville in his turn took an interest in the Latin-based phonetic script that Li was using to write Chipewyan. Between dictation sessions Mandeville learned to write that way as well—yet he remained to the end of his life an oral poet, not a writer.2 The oral world and literate world are different, to be sure, but they needn’t be as mutually exclusive as they’re often said to be. (The only thing that makes them mutually exclusive, so far as I can see, is religious, economic, and academic coercion.)

My specialties in the domain of the unwritten are Native American and early Greek oral literature. Almost everyone is passively aware that oral books existed in the ancient Greek world and that versions of two of them at least—the Iliad and the Odyssey—got very handsomely written down. Not so many people seem to know that every preliterate culture had an oral literature, and that large and complex oral works—oral books, in other words—are a normal feature of healthy oral cultures. There is, in other words, powerful evidence that the book—not the material book but the book as a large, highly organized river of words—is a cultural universal, like the sentence. You don’t have to have triremes and chariots, plumed helmets and bronze weapons, Doric temples, or palaces with servants and storerooms full of treasure to have large and highly sophisticated works of oral literature. Paleolithic and Mesolithic societies with very modest material cultures have had, and some of them still have, well-maintained, substantial libraries of viva voce works.

There is powerful evidence that the book—not the material book but the book as a large, highly organized river of words—is a cultural universal, like the sentence.

Oral books are not fixed texts. They’re preserved through internalization, not memorization. Like jazz tunes, Indian rāgas, and Indonesian gamelan gendhing, the books of oral cultures are re-created each time they’re performed. What you might call chance or circumstance plays a role, but the process is no more accidental and arbitrary than biological reproduction. Each performance worthy of the name is the product of tradition coupled with individual artistry, fueled almost always by experience and reflection. This is hazardous, not because of the threat of random mutation but because oral cultures tend to be small and lightly armed. Communities can perish. When they do, their literature may simply disappear. Yet many oral books have had long and fruitful lives without the assistance of writing or printing.

There are dangers, of course, in the other direction as well. Something is lost as well as gained when a work of oral literature is transcribed. Oral books have a liveliness, fluidity, and adaptability their written transcripts lack. And they are very seldom made for export. Where an oral literature exists—and only there—you will find oral literacy too: an understanding of how to hear the oral book when it is spoken: how to read, with the mind’s eyes and ears, between the lines that are not written.

In literate cultures, the world of storytelling is taken to be a confined, restricted space where fancy reigns and we’re permitted, for a moment, to pretend that magic happens. When things are put in writing they become more dependable, enforceable, and available to rigorous analysis. Nevertheless, writing, like telling, has a magic of its own. So does the codex form in which writing and printing have flowered. A codex is quite simple yet wonderfully complex: a flexible crystal of paper, ink, and thread holding time and thought between its leaves. People fall in love with codices. They also often fall in love with scripts. Understandably, many people insist that a book is not a book until it’s been written or printed and folded and sewn and you can hold it in your hand. This, however, raises a difficult question. If the Iliad, the Beowulf, the Rāmāyana of Vālmīki, and the Qquuna Cycle of the Haida poet Skaay weren’t books until after they were transcribed, what were they before then? Is a song not a song, a ballad not a ballad, or a sonata not a sonata until it’s written down? Why would it be different with an epic or epyllion?

It’s never been easy for literate people to intrude on an oral culture and stay long enough to start to get their bearings, much less learn the language and rules of etiquette and start to make some friends. It’s next to impossible to do this now, with resource exploration and exploitation running in overdrive and very few oral cultures left. Nevertheless, it’s been done many times. Hundreds of those who have done it in the last two centuries were trained ethnolinguists, capable of writing down the sounds of any language they might hear and of learning it well enough to take extensive dictation. Because this has been done so many times, in so many different places, with such impressive results, there is no longer any question whether oral books exist. They exist, they’ve been transcribed, and they’ll knock your socks off if you read a few, even in ungainly and nonliterary translations.

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So when the future of the book comes up in conversation, I find it easy to sound like an optimist—up to a point. Books, I think, will be here, in one form or another, so long as there are humans. How long there will be humans, given our lack of care for the planet we’re a part of, is not something I can say. But books, I think, are things that humans make, or try to make, as persistently as birds make nests, and we do it for similar reasons. Very few real books are made for amusement or for money. They’re made as containers or incubation chambers for things that we inherit from the past, reconceive in the present, and hope to pass along to present and future generations.

There are a lot of ways to make nests, and remarkably few species of birds have given up doing it. It may look, at the present time, as if billions of humans have given up books, but I’m not quite sure that’s true. I see that many humans have been forcibly detached from a rich heritage of oral or written books and are making and using simplistic and shallow and short-lived books as a substitute. Simplistic is different from simple. Many oystercatcher nests are just a low spot in the rock, a little way above high tide, and emperor penguins—who have no twigs or moss or leaves or mud or even rocks to work with—use their own webbed feet for nests. These adaptations are Spartan but not simplistic—and they are sustainable. If there are now billions of humans whose books are rudimentary and simplistic, or who have no books at all, is that a foretaste of the future? Are there bookless, or almost bookless, human communities anywhere on the planet with a sustainable way of life? If not, then booklessness is not an adaptation but an aberrant behavior—a side effect, perhaps, of cultural disorientation and stress, but not a diagnostic feature of any future that might endure.

Acute ecological collapse, massive decline of all vertebrate, mollusc, and arthropod populations, and the perilous survival of, at best, small bands of human beings, each with its own highly localized oral culture, is not my favorite vision of the future—but some of the alternatives, such as a global fascist state led by one lunatic after another, are no prettier. The important books in fascist regimes tend to be the illegal ones, poorly manufactured and surreptitiously distributed. Poorly manufactured books, printed in small type with gray ink on acidic, short-lived paper and bound with brittle glue, have been crucial to the cultural life of free societies also. I got my own education largely from such books. Nowadays I make extensive use of a related class of books: the far-from-perfect digital facsimiles available through electronic libraries such as the Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum and Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive. I therefore have a soft spot for cheap and flimsy versions of important texts—books that deserve to be (and in many cases have been) magnificently printed but which come to me in disposable or purely intangible form.

It troubles me, however, when I see trade and academic publishers actively complicit in suborning the fabric of their books, as if all books were mere commodities whose importance lies in their profit margin alone. This is done in several ways. One is to attach two slabs of cardboard and a dust jacket to a glue-bound paperback and call it a genuine hardcover. (This is like making fake bricks from polystyrene, or fake ceramic tile out of vinyl, and selling them as real.) Another is to underprint the original run of a book (the first several hundred or several thousand copies, normally printed on an offset press), then move to short-run printing when the initial orders have been filled. Short-run printing is the same as print-on-demand, except that multiple copies—several dozen as a rule—are made at one time. The decline in quality this involves is often precipitous, yet the fact that it’s been done is almost never publicized, and the selling price is almost never reduced; sometimes it’s raised. The reader who wants a decent copy of such a book has to be fast enough to buy it on publication day or diligent enough to find a good used copy later on.

What troubles me is the assumption that simulacra are all we have and all we are.

These methods and others produce what are essentially throwaway books, but that in itself is not the problem. Their cheapness doesn’t disturb me, nor their perishability either. (Nothing is more perishable than an oral book, yet oral books can last for many lifetimes.) Short-run printing has genuine uses. But short-run books, like paperback books, should be labeled as what they are, not disguised as what they’re not. What troubles me is the pretense, the charade, the implicit lack of respect for booksellers, readers, writers, and books themselves. What troubles me is the assumption that simulacra are all we have and all we are. That kind of self-destructive publishing makes me think that the immediate future of the book, like the future of the species and the future of the biosphere, is not just shrinking but being knowingly, deliberately whittled away.

Heriot Bay, British Columbia

1. For an alternate account of this exchange, see The Guardian, Nov. 20, 2022, online.

2. See François Mandeville, This Is What They Say, edited and translated by Ron Scollon, with a foreword by Robert Bringhurst (2009).

Robert Bringhurst’s classic The Elements of Typographic Style (4th ed., 2012) has just appeared in French translation. His other books include A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World. His latest publication is a volume of poems, The Ridge (2023).