Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Printing will destroy architecture"

"The book will destroy the edifice."
- Dom Claude, in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

My husband has lately been reading Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and pointed out a passage to me that tied up with a current train of thought I'd been having. It's a long passage so I'll skip around a little but the gist of it is the thought that the Gutenberg press was threatening the art of architecture:

"When the legends of primitive races became so numerous, and their reciting was so confused that the stories were about to be lost, people began to transcribe these memories in the most visible, the most lasting, and at the same time the most natural medium. Every tradition was sealed under a monument."

This practice, says Hugo, eventually gave rise to the elaborate architecture of the cathedral and castle. But with the printing press, those same ideas were not captured in words, not in images. Hugo writes:

"Here was a premonition that human thought had advanced, and, in changing, was about to change its mode of expression, that the important ideas of each new generation would be recorded in a new way, that the book of stone, so solid and so enduring, was about to be supplanted by the paper book, which would become more enduring still. In this respect, the vague formula of the archdeacon had a second meaning: That one art would dethrone another art. It meant: Printing will destroy architecture."

It brought to mind the many discussions on the future of traditional publishing in the light of digital publishing. It seems that one was seen as a threat to the other, with both points of view pointing at the other and saying that the end was coming. Obviously, with hindsight, architecture hasn't been done away with. It has changed and modified its look with the trends of the cultures it represents. Perhaps it has become more functional. But it has still carried on with a purpose and with the artistry of those that practice it. A book can't provide shelter like a building can and a building can still express a concept, a thought, an idea even if not as graphically as it once did with its murals and carved edifices.

I suspect the reverse is true of traditional print publishing and digital publishing. The digital formats reduce much of the art to the functional - so far, anyways - while traditional publishing maintains the art and craftsmanship. But there will be room for both to develop their strengths and unique position in a previously unchallenged marketplace. One will have a little more "weight of tradition" behind it, while the other breaks new ground and presents age-old ideas in new and novel ways.

In the end, I suspect traditional publishing will carry on. Not at odds with digital possibilities but in standing as a monument to the ideas and artistry of its kind to be practiced with an old and new purpose unique to itself.

Let's see how it works out.

*all excerpts from Book V, chapter 2 "This Will Kill That"

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