For my final paper, I’m exploring the idea of format when it comes to books. The readings that I’ve done so far have really made me consider textuality beyond the book, specifically regarding the phonograph during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. Both the Ruberry article and a fascinating book by Lisa Gitelman, titled Scprits, Grooves, and Writing Machines, highlight the utter grip on the cultural and intellectual imaginations that the phonograph held. It’s my fascination with cultural narratives and influences on popular imaginaries that I would chose to return to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.
What really stands out to me about this period is the quickness of mainstream imagination in eschewing the traditional textuality of the book for an aural experience. The ability to “read” in bed via phonograph enthralled people. Prior to the phonograph, insufficient lighting and fire hazards made bedtime reading a rarity. Throughout his adult life, Thomas Edison received thousands of letters from diverse people about ideas for inventions and particularly applications for the phonograph. In some circles, it would appear that the traditional book would soon become passé. Or that paper records of meetings would not longer be necessary, as aural recording would fulfill the need to archive records. And to an extent, in the early twenty-first century, the success of the audiobook and the increasingly paperless (e.g. digital) repositories for records is a reality explored at quite some length during Edison’s time.
In my time travels back to this era, I’m not sure if I’d want to say anything about the future of the book. Rather, I’d be more interested in learning more about ideas about the future, and impart how these ideas about new writing, hearing, and reading inventors impact ideas of textuality at the turn of the twentieth-century America. Perhaps the one thing that I would mention that all these ideas about the future of the reading didn’t lead to the extinction of the traditional book, but rather complemented it through different forms (such as the audiobook). Just as there was a great diversity of ideas for inventions at this time, I think that it would be important to empathize that excluding the traditional book (e.g. a format that is actually read, not heard) leads to an oversimplification of the future of the book.
Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.
Ruberry, Matthew. "Canned Literature: the Book After Edison." Book History 16 (2013): 215-45.