An explosion of new books, unrestrained publishing, an age when anyone can be an author...
Is this a vignette of the Kindle Store or iBooks in the present?
Actually: 16th century Switzerland.
As Vaughan Bell wrote in Slate, Swiss botanist Conrad Gessner blew a gasket condemning the eruption of data in the wake of the printing press, calling it "confusing and harmful" to the mind. -- and Gessner died in 1565.
Where did I read this? On my Kindle.
Nothing ever changes. Or as Mark Twain more aptly said: "History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes."
As 2013 approaches, and more eBooks than paper ones are sold by Amazon, many are threatened by the Nook, iPad and other eReaders. In the 1500s it was the humble scriveners who were run off by moveable type.
The Luddites, those who led the violent charge against automation and technology in the 19th century, were right to be fearful. Breaking the machines that stole their livelihood appeared to be their only hope.
But history shows that resisting change is always a losing proposition. Where there were once scribes, along came typesetters. For every obsolete hand weaver, two new mechanized loom manufacturers are needed as the new technology spurs growth. It is best to learn and adapt, not fight the losing battle against change.
I was speaking to an ecologically minded colleague, who should theoretically welcome a device that saves millions of trees from ending up as hardcover bricks, but remains hell-bent against the Kindle revolution. It may have something to do with good old-fashioned resistance to change. Or it could be the natural fear of the old order being upended. Or it could be snobbery, as eBooks democratize the precious pastures of erstwhile cultural hierarchies. Just as the printing press threatened the Church's control over information exchange, so does the eReader threaten different elites.
The physical book will always remain in some respect, but more as an aesthetic curiosity, and a fine, curated remnant of a prior age. Just as fountain pens retain a romantic magnetism for what once was, so will paper books always produce that inimitable smell as the spine cracks.
But reading? Whether by candlelight or halogen, that will be done by Kindles, Nooks and iPads.
(An earlier version of this piece was first published in the Berman Value Folio, a Forbes/Trefis Newsletter)