A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

B is for Books

In 2009 Umberto Eco was optimistic about the future fate of the codex form. The book was ‘like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved’. Yet the book seems to have lived in a constant state of anxiety about its future survival. In 2011 the Guardian asked, ‘Are books dead?’; in 1992 the New York Times reported ‘The End of Books’; and in 1894 a piece by Octave Uzanne in Scribner’s Magazine predicted ‘The End of Books’.

Uzanne’s tale, illustrated by Albert Rodiba, was not really about the end of books but the end of print. His prediction was that the phonograph would be to printing as the elevator had been to stairs: in the future books would be heard rather than held, manipulated, and seen. Writers would become narrators, libraries would become ‘phonostereoteks’, and voices would be copyrighted. Books – and the kinds of relationships of which they formed a part – would stay. Books would still be elaborately bound, but the binding would be found on tubes containing the cylinder recordings. These books would still be ‘read’ – reading would simply mean listening rather than seeing.

Similar statements could be found in the predictive columns authored by John Kendrick Bangs and published in the New York Herald in 1905. In Bang’s vision, libraries were centres of either loud communal listening through phonographs or private listening to stocks of cylinders in individual alcoves. In fact, Bangs suggested that by 1907 the library itself would now only be a distribution centre of listenable knowledge: like gas or electricity books would be transmitted via wires into the homes of Americans.

Several other images predicted that the codex form would be side-lined by new media: in Harry Grant Dart’s ‘We’ll All be Happy Then’, published in Life in 1911 a robot assistant at the side of the image has brought an open book to his master but its peripheral placement and disappointed demeanour suggests that the seated man is more interested in the moving images supplied by a lap-based projector and the various pieces of audio equipment that surround him.

In fact, compared to more ephemeral print – newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, and single-sheets – books are relatively uncommon in nineteenth and early twentieth-century images of the future. The term ephemera originally drew its name from a short-lived fly. The illustration of an air-bound swarm of ‘Jersey Commuters’ in a 1907 issue of Life, drew on the long-standing metaphor linking print ephemera and buzzing insects: the majority of the swarm clutch newspapers which they read as they fly.

However, books are not altogether absent. In Garrett P. Serviss’ story ‘Edison’s Conquest of Mars’, serialised in the New York Journal, an image shows a captured Martian aboard a human space-ship holding a book. The story tells of the joy and excitement of the crew on discovering the prisoner’s book, which provides an aid for learning the Martian language. In a vision of the impacts of female suffrage in the U.S published in Puck in 1880 a ‘lovely woman’ stands, in top-hat and suit, on top of a book titled ‘Female Comportment’. In the same year Punch published a vision of ‘Lady Students at University’ that included several studious women armed with open books. In these visions of the future books – whether seen or heard – still had power and purpose.

Albert Rodiba, ‘The Binding of the Future (Tubes de luxe.)’, in Octave Uzanne, ‘The End of Books’, Scribner’s Magazine, 16 (1894), 226.