Of Making Many Books There Is No End by James R. Coggins

“Do you still use a typewriter?”

It is one of those questions that I get asked from time to time. I think it is intended to imply that I am old and out of date.

Unfortunately, the question is not completely misdirected. Until about two years ago, I used a typewriter every day.

But I didn’t use it for typing. For years, I propped my old portable typewriter against my office door to hold the door open. It made a good doorstop. The grandchildren were fascinated by this new and unique (to them) piece of technology. They were always asking if they could use it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t, at least not very well. The ribbon was worn out, and it was impossible to get replacements. The technology was obsolete.

Still, I had had that typewriter for half a century, and it had given me good service. I wrote a lot of things on it. Some of them were even good. I hope.

We have to move with the times. Next time my computer dies, I plan to use that as my new doorstop. I shouldn’t have to wait long. Computers only last about five years. There is no way that a computer will still work after 50 years.

I am grateful for the invention of the typewriter. It allowed people to produce uniformly legible print at high speed (if they were good typists).

I am also grateful for the invention of the computer. It makes writing and editing and publishing much easier and more efficient. It is astounding that someone as old and out of date as I am can write, edit, and lay out a book on a machine that, taking inflation into account, cost no more than my old typewriter.

That got me thinking about technological change. I have lived through a lot of it. It is astounding to think that I wrote my first book (my doctoral thesis) with a pen and paper, not even a typewriter. And now I publish books on my personal desktop computer. Historically, the first books were written and copied by hand, a very slow and laborious process. The printing press, the typewriter, the photocopier, the computer, and the many new electronic gizmos that I have not yet mastered have made the whole process so much easier and more efficient.

And yet I wonder. Has the process become too easy? Anyone can now churn out a book. But are these new books better than older books? Shakespeare did not even have a typewriter, but printing presses copied his writings and spread them around the world. His plays are still read, studied, and performed four centuries later. Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Chaucer, and many others lived long before the invention of typewriters and printing presses, but their works are still read today. The Bible is still relevant and powerful thousands of years after it was written, but maybe that should not count. Its authors had divine help.

Modern technology has made the production of books and stories much faster. But that does not mean that these modern books will last longer or even as long. Technology does not necessarily improve the quality of the stories.

Writings with sufficient quality have been preserved by copying them over and over again for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Only high quality writings are worth so much sustained effort.

We even have original copies of some ancient writings. That is because back then writers used much slower and yet more permanent communications media. They chiseled their messages into stone or metal or baked them into hardened clay.

Paper has also proven to be relatively enduring although not as impervious to time as stone and metal. Today, we have manuscripts that are hundreds of years old and a few that are even thousands of years old. On even my modest bookshelf I have a stack of older books that includes:

• W. M. Thackery, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, printed in 1845.  

• Bill Slade, The Doctor’s Boy: A Story Founded on Fact, which one of my ancestors acquired in 1868.

The Son of the Pyrenees, acquired by the same ancestor in 1871.

• Charles Dickens, Hard Times, printed in 1903.

Brilliants selected from the writings of Henry Ward Beecher, printed in 1904.

Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, printed in 1913.

• John Ruskin, The King of the Golden River, printed in 1914.

Selections from The Arabian Nights, printed in 1920.

• A book of Robert Browning’s poetry published with a soft leather cover and acquired by my grandfather, a school teacher, who died about 65 years ago.

That makes me wonder. Will anyone still have a copy of my books a hundred years from now? The Canadian government insists that I send two copies of every book I publish to be preserved in the Canadian archives for…well, not forever, but for as long as the government and its archives endure…but will anyone else have a copy or care?

Modern computer technology produces writing much more quickly but much less permanently. Ebooks don’t even exist in paper form, only digitally, and nothing is less permanent than digital records. There are things that I saved on floppy disks twenty and thirty years ago that are now lost because the computers and programs that could access them no longer exist. A few government records from several centuries before Christ (preserved on stone, metal, clay, and even parchment) still exist. North American government archives retain records from over 200 years ago. But many government records preserved in digital form 30 or 40 years ago are gone, no longer accessible by the newest generations of computers.

Solomon wrote over 3,000 years ago: “The work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish?” (Ecclesiastes 2:17-19) He concluded that everything is meaningless because it is temporary and impermanent. And yet we still read his words today.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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