New Publication: The Secret Life of Books

Tom Mole, Director of the Centre for the History of the Book, has published a new book exploring how books transform us as individuals and why, even with the arrival of other media, books still have the power change our lives. 

These days, we hear a lot about how digital technologies threaten the book. Electronic texts and paper books are lined up as antagonists in newspaper reports about the latest e-book sales figures. Reading on the screen is blamed for the closure of bookshops. Commentators fret about how to get children to spend more time with the printed page. In these conditions, bookish folk can start to feel under siege from the digital. Sitting down with a paper book can begin to seem like an anachronism, like wearing a watch chain.

I think there are some valid concerns here. But in my new book The Secret Life of Books I’m not really interested in promoting a heavyweight title fight between page and screen, or in betting on the winner. The new battle of the books actually conceals a far more interesting story about the history of how books have engaged with new technologies. Digital technologies are the most recent in a long line of innovations that have both troubled and enlivened bookish culture, and their story is the latest chapter in a saga that stretches much further back.

Throughout its long history, the book has assisted at the birth of several new technologies. Print got its start in the world by appearing in a book. For the pioneers of print, it was posters, forms and single sheets that paid the bills. They were more important to the economic survival of early printing businesses than books. Johannes Gutenberg probably paused midway through printing his first Bibles so he could take on more of this kind of ‘job printing’, which eased his cash-flow problems and brought in enough money to pay his workmen to finish the Bible. We can even imagine an alternative universe in which printing never took off as a technology for books at all, but was confined to these other more ephemeral kinds of documents. This is what happened with later technologies like the mimeograph and the photocopier, which reproduced all kinds of documents but were rarely used for books. Fifteenth-century printers, however, invested time and resources in printing books because books were luxury products with a lot of cachet. They wanted to borrow the cultural currency of the manuscript book to promote the new technology of print. The book offered print a kind of prestige that it could never have achieved if the first printers had stuck to song sheets and forms.

When photography appeared in the nineteenth century, a similar story unfolded. William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the negative–positive process, described his innovations in a paper read to the Royal Institution in London in January 1839, and another read at the Royal Society a few weeks later. In 1842, the Royal Society gave him its Rumford Medal, recognising the importance of his discoveries. But Talbot didn’t rely on scientific societies and their technical journals to spread the word about his new invention. He knew that if he wanted his method to be widely recognised and accepted by the public, he needed to put it into a book. He published his first efforts in photography in The Pencil of Nature, issued in six parts beginning in 1844. The Pencil of Nature took the shape of a book, but it also made books part of its subject: it included one photograph of a shelf of books and another of a page of type. Once again, the material object of the book helped a new technology to gain currency.

In The Secret Life of Books, I look at a number of examples of the relationships between books and technology, showing how the book played a role in the rise of the railway, the telephone, and the technologies of sound recording. This history can give us a new perspective on how books fare in moments of media change, such as the one we’re living through at the moment. If paper books were simply machines for reading, delivery systems for streams of text, then we would happily have abandoned them by now in favour of faster, cheaper and more effective versions of the same thing, just as we’ve ditched telegrams in favour of emails. But there’s more to the book than that. It’s all the other things that we do with books besides reading them, all the meanings we invest them with, and all the imaginative work we ask them to do, that make it hard to replace the printed book with another format, no matter how closely the new format replicates the reading experience of the existing one, or how much it promises to improve on it.

The Secret Life of Books will be published by Elliot and Thomson on the 19th of September 2019. Tom will be giving a talk on his new book at Toppings Bookshop, Edinburgh, on Thursday 26th of September.