“Typographical Fixity” (a term coined by historian Elizabeth Eisenstein) served as a cultural preservative; imbued written things with a sense of permanency. This was especially comforting when recording history and other matters one wanted to preserve for the ages.
And this is a core reason why the printed word will never cease to exist.
Digital, the new publishing dancing partner, does bring new great things to the dance … BUT, it also brings some bad breath along with it.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Digital now gives us movable text. This is both good and bad … at least until new innovation is introduced (and it will come) that will prevent abuse of the written digital word to reflect ideas other than originally intended.
Books That Are Never Done Being Written
Digital text is ushering in an era of perpetual revision and updating, for better and for worse
I recently got a glimpse into the future of books. A few months ago, I dug out a handful of old essays I’d written about innovation, combined them into a single document, and uploaded the file to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. Two days later, my little e-book was on sale at Amazon’s site. The whole process couldn’t have been simpler.
Then I got the urge to tweak a couple of sentences in one of the essays. I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.
An e-book, I realized, is far different from an old-fashioned printed one. The words in the latter stay put. In the former, the words can keep changing, at the whim of the author or anyone else with access to the source file. The endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type a half-millennium ago, he also gave us immovable text. Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously. The publication of a book, once a nebulous process, became an event.
A new set of literary workers coalesced in publishing houses, collaborating with writers to perfect texts before they went on press. The verb “to finalize” became common in literary circles, expressing the permanence of printed words. Different editions still had textual variations, introduced either intentionally as revisions or inadvertently through sloppy editing or typesetting, but books still came to be viewed, by writer and reader alike, as immutable objects. They were written for posterity.
Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention.