Though I share the Bibliophile Bullpen’s skepticism about Microsoft’s repeated claims that e-media will soon replace print media, the ancient historian in me has to take issue with her assertion that “PRINT is the longest lived media humanity has managed to create.”
Leaving aside media such as stones and metals too expensive for anything but monumental or ritual use, the honor for most durable written media must go to the clay tablet—the chief carrier of cuneiform script and the literatures of Mesopotamian and surrounding cultures for more than 2,000 years. Though easily broken, a fired ceramic tablet is otherwise virtually immune to the ravages of time. As a result, more documentation of daily life in second and first millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia has survived than of most subsequent cultures who switched to using ink on parchment or papyrus, which were more convenient but much less durable.
In fact, changes in written media over the five-thousand-year history of writing have always tended towards greater impermanence. From clay tablets to parchment to papyrus (admittedly in use in Egypt as early as cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia) to rag paper to wood-pulp paper and now to electronic media, the materials have become easier to use but less and less permanent.
Nevertheless, complaints about electronic media’s impermanence and mutability points to an important aspect of the book’s iconic status: texts are supposed to preserve their contents for the future. They represent an author’s hopes for immortality, a nation’s desire for permanence, a religion’s claim to eternal truth. Conscious of our heritage from previous generations, we cherish old texts as relics that connect us to the past. Conscious of our own mortality, we hope that “our” books will live on indefinitely.
The traditional codex makes that realistically possible and verifiably true of many texts. Electronic media show no sign of being able to offer the same hope.
Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)