Gutenberg’s end

Wooden movable type, Gutenberg’s innovation in printing

Roughly 500 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg introduced moveable type and the modern book was born. Gutenberg hoped that his invention would make the Bible more available and help sustain and enlarge the Catholic faith, but ironically it was reformer Martin Luther who used moveable type to create his many pamphlets and created a Protestant schism in Christianity. Technology is a disruptive force and one can never fully anticipate its effects.

Prior to Guttenberg, books were scribed by hand, and religious texts were often richly illustrated and ornamented. These illuminated works sometimes took an entire lifetime of one scribe, and the finished books were reserved and locked away in protected libraries for safe-keeping. Today, Google has embarked upon digitally preserving many of these old manuscripts, a case of newer technology actually supporting the preservation of an older forms. Yet alongside these preservation efforts, one finds an unmistakable trend: printed books are losing their monetary value.

This became glaringly clear to me recently as my sister and I worked to find a home for the extensive library of books in my late mother’s apartment. My mother and her companion both loved books, and the walls of their apartment are lined with books. In their den, an entire 25-foot long wall is covered floor to ceiling with shelves filled with hardcover books about art, artists, archeology, religion, novels, and more. In the living room two large shelf units hold books in Greek, and French, and a collection of very old leather-covered books from the 19th Century. The bedrooms are filled with enormous tomes about Greece, the Etruscans, Paris, and ancient cultures.

We called rare book dealers and made appointments for them to come see the collection. Some simply said they were not interested. Others came by but selected only a few volumes here and there which they felt they might be able to sell. “Book collecting is over,” one of them announced to my sister. “An entire generation of book lovers is dying and all their books are being junked. Nobody is investing in old books anymore. I’m barely staying in business.”  We tried libraries and museums, but none of them were interested. Same goes for schools; institutions don’t have space or staff to deal with more books. At a recent sale to benefit the New York public library, 300,000 volumes were sold for $3 or less; on its last day everything was priced at a buck.

Books are heavy, take up a space, and only work one reader at a time. Our current high-technology-oriented generation is not printed book-centric; they like information, tons of it in fact, but they like it in small pieces fed to them throughout the day. It is for this reason Facebook and Twitter have gained so much traction. Blame it on short-attention span, multi-tasking, ADD, speediness, whatever; the collecting of bound books has fallen by the wayside.

As a book lover I must admit to feeling great sadness about this trend. The thought of junking my mother’s collection of books depresses me, and I don’t know if I can bring myself to do that. We did find one book dealer who offers to buy books, but he pays a flat fee by the foot.

In the end, we might simply put the books in storage for a generation or two. Perhaps in 50 years printed books will be collectible again. I’m so sorry, mom.

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