You could make a drinking game out of headlines proclaiming the death of books. But the book itself was just a change from previous writing and record keeping systems… and in many cases never fully got rid of the predessors. Tablets, scrolls, and stone inscriptions are still in use today, they just aren’t the primary form of conveying written information. Each time there’s a leap forward in written records it doesn’t totally displace the old system, it just expands who has access to writing of any form.
But getting to the book we know today wasn’t exactly a straight path either. There were stops in between the giant stone block and today’s paperback. Some alternate systems still persist even today.
Cuneiform was the earliest form of writing and lasted for 3000 years. The exact appearance shifted over that time, but the basics stayed the same. Take a wedge shaped stylus into clay to make marks. Let clay dry (or fire for long term storage). Then you had a hard, durable record. Early tablets were primarily used for accounting purposes and then slowly came to be used to record other things. While these can be broken, cunniform tablets still turn up today. An archaeological team in Israel recently found cuneiform tablets with some of the earliest known legal texts on them. They’re roughly 3700-3800 years old.
The downside here was that cuneiform tablets were heavy and took up a lot of space. The Egyptians got around this by using papyrus, an early form of paper. Unfortunately papyrus is sensitive to extreme dryness or wetness. (not a great substance in a desert country that dramatically floods annually) Papyrus also couldn’t be folded as it would crack along the folds. This pretty well introduced the scroll format for longer documents. It was light and portable…. but fragile. It also was expensive since it only grew in a very specific climate. But scrolls of papyrus were still used for 3000 or so years before falling out of favor.
The BOOK as we think of it didn’t come into common use until parchment. Parchment (also known as vellum) is made from thinly split animal skins. Papyrus CAN be bound in a book format but its’ brittleness made the pages fragile. Parchment was more forgiving of being folded, so was easier to make a durable book out of. Unfortunately it’s still sensitive to humidity, but was still an improvement over brittle papyrus. It also could be produced virtually anywhere, you didn’t have to import papyrus from half way round the known world. The book (or codex as they were first known) thus has existed for around 2000 years.
The printing press and the introduction of paper as we know it really just improved slightly on technology that was 1000-1500 years old at that point. While paper invaded from Asia, the scroll still stayed popular a lot longer in Asia than in the west. Scrolls are still used for some types of writing even now. The Jewish Torah is still traditionally written on scrolls rather than in a book format.
The wax tablet was a variation on the book that was widely used during the era when parchment and paper were expensive for use on temporary documents. A sheet of wax inside a fold open case was used to scratch figures into for later transfer to more permanent paper records, or erased when no longer useful. Once the price of paper and parchment started to tumble, they fell out of favor.
Meanwhile off in the Americas, the pre-Columbian civilizations there developed their own version of the book. They just started off using something a lot closer to what we think of as “paper”. Amatl was made out of the inner bark of fig trees and covered in lime. (much like modern paper is covered with clay or other minerals) Mesoamerican codices were generally folded accordion style as they were a lot more durable than papyrus and easily withstood folding. (so looked more like street maps than what we think of as books) Despite their durability, only around a dozen or so Mesoamerican codices survive… all the rest were burnt by missionaries and conquistadors with explicit orders to destroy them. One of the surviving codices, the 800 year old Dresden Codex, actually survived the firebombing of Dresden, which gives you a hint as to just how durable Mayan books really were.
Elsewhere in the world, other types of books were in use. South Asia and Southeast Asia used palm leaves for writing on. Once smoked and dried, they were easy to write on. However, these needed to be recopied on a regular basis because the leaves would disintegrate. Once the printing press was introduced in the 19th century, use of palm leaves stopped for official documents… but some archives still hold bound bundles of palm leaf documents that they’re now trying to transcribe before they disintegrate.
So, will ebooks displace the 2000 year old technology of the book? Probably not very quickly and will probably never truly displace the book for some uses, especially long term archiving of materials. Even with its upsides, it took a millenium for the book to displace scrolls and tablets. For some things, it STILL hasn’t displaced them! Even now, the book sometimes mimics the older technologies. Cuneiform’s strength over written words on papyrus was it could be read in the dark or by the blind. Braille text just reintroduced that strength to a new format.
Technology also expands the use of some of those older recording methods. power tools and now laser etching makes stone carving a lot easier and there may be MORE stone inscriptions made today than there ever were when it was the only form of writing.
Digital books have much the same problem other formats faced when they were introduced: high cost, use of scarce resources that must be imported, need specialists to produce the actual text portion, and they’re sensitive to dampness and dust. Plus a new concern: susceptibility to magnetic shifts and pulses. If you buried a Kindle or iPad in the desert, it might not be usable after a day of that treatment, let alone 2000 years later. You won’t be seeing hype about the discovery of the Dead Sea Kindle. Meanwhile, archaeologists and historians are still finding those ancient texts in “dead formats” that then set off a flurry of writing in the new format about the old format.
The question isn’t whether ebooks will kill the book (they won’t), but in how much MORE writing ebooks will make available. Have we reached the saturation point on how much farther literacy can spread due to technological advance? The book’s key weaknesses are weight, susceptibility to dampness, and a growing sense that printing on wood pulp is environmentally untenable. Of course, there’s new types of paper just around the corner that can knock off that last concern and are a lot less susceptible to dampness. If costs on better print materials continue to tumble (and the costs of presses themselves) books will happily coexist with ebooks for a long time to come.
Transitory print mediums like newspapers and magazines may have a very hard time fighting off ebooks, but for now books are still what you want if you want to keep the item. The kindle, ipad, Nook and its ilk thus aren’t really the new “book”, they’re the new wax tablet. They’re fabulous for transitory information that can be more cheaply accessed and produced in that format, but for long term viability, the book has 2000 years of refinement on its side.