The Eerily Prescient World of Books in 19th & 20th Century Sci-Fi

Did you know that the storyline in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was set just a quarter-century after the printing of Gutenberg’s first bible?

According to Leah Price in the Paris Review, the novel “depicted an archdeacon worrying that the book would kill the cathedral and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were killing scribes’ trade.”

As so it goes on through the years, with one technology usurping another. Yet the core essence of a well-loved media doesn’t simply evaporate.

“In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another: the rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading,” Price continues. “Yet in 1913, a journalist interviewing Thomas Edison on the future of motion pictures recounted the inventor declaring confidently that ‘books … will soon be obsolete in the public schools.’ By 1927 a librarian could observe that ‘pessimistic defenders of the book … are wont to contrast the actual process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophecy the death of the book.’ And in 1966, Marshall McLuhan stuck books into a list of outdated antiques: ‘clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs—all are obsolete.’”

While McLuhan may have been correct about clotheslines (for the most part) and seamed stockings (even stockings as a whole), clearly both jobs and books still exist. Changed, with publishing techniques and modern work both altered dramatically by technology, yes, but still here.

Price gives a fascinating look at the predicted changes to what we know as “book” over the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with the rise in literacy and daily papers; steam printing; and of course the exotic formats imagined by the era’s sci-fi writers. “’fonografic’ recordings (Library Journal, 1883), ‘telephonic sermons’ (Edward Bellamy, 1887), VCR-like ‘Babble Machines’ (H.G. Wells, 1899), microfilm-esque ‘reading-machine bobbins’ (Aldous Huxley, 1932), and ‘spools which projected books’ (Ray Bradbury, 1948).

“In 1885, the French librarian R. Balmer gave the names of ‘whispering-machine’ and ‘metal automatic book’ to something that sounds uncannily like an audiobook,” Price continues. “Its user ‘would place the machine in the hat, and have the sounds conveyed to the ear by wires.’ Besides curing eyestrain, these ‘reading machines’ would ‘permit of the pursuit simultaneously of physical and of mental improvement.’ Translation: instead of hunching over desks, intellectuals would be free to jog. And with both hands free, their wives could read while dishwashing: ‘The problem of the higher education of woman would be triumphantly solved.’”

As fantastical as it all sounded in the context of the day, we are living in the future they imagined. And still, books thrive. The technological alternatives offer some advantage in certain situations, but the essence of “book” as physical, tangible, wholly engrossing entity continues.

But Price offers a caution. The predictions of the 19th and 20th centuries often included the idea that book production and possession was moved underground, as texts were condensed and parsed into an electronic form that could be more easily controlled and restricted.

“Even the writers whose imaginations run riot in picturing new machines for viewing and storing text either give no space to libraries, bookstores, and postal systems, or imagine those intermediaries as mirror images of their own era,” she writes.

This, not our lack of love for print books, is what Price believes could ultimately be the medium’s downfall.

“Writers who foresaw space travel, time travel, and virtual reality still failed to imagine that libraries that provide more digital and print service than ever before might nonetheless find their staffs fired and replaced by volunteers; their survival dependent on self-help books prescribed by doctors; their Carnegie-era premises sold off to for-profit companies that turn their vaulted reading rooms into private gyms where books are ingested, if at all, through earphones on the treadmill,” she writes. “Whatever its medium, I’m confident that the experience of immersion in a world made of words will survive if and only if readers continue to carve out places and times to have words with one another.”

On that note, go support a local bookstore or library. Words matter … and so does having the places in which they can be shared.