The end of books has been declared many times. Over a century before the invention of the e-reader and the meteoric rise of the audiobook and podcast, ardent French bibliophile Octave Uzanne (1851–1931) wrote a story, inspired by rapid advances in phonographic technology, imagining how printed text might disappear.
The premise of “The End of Books” is eminently Victorian. On a Friday evening in the early 1890s, a group of men is walking home together from a talk given by William Thomson at the Royal Institute in London. Fired up after hearing the famous physicist explain that the end of the world was “mathematically certain to occur in precisely ten million years” (based on calculations regarding the gradual cooling of the sun), these “philologians, historians, journalists, statisticians, and merely interested men of the world” proceed to wax poetic about their own theories of the future — ranging from an art critic’s pronouncement that museums will soon be burned to the ground to a “gentle vegetarian” and learned naturalist’s assertion that all nutriment will be taken in the cruelty-free “form of powders, sirups, pellets, and biscuits.”
If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.
This claim causes a stir among the Bibliophile’s learned interlocutors, who plead with him to explain what he means. “I take my stand,” he says, “upon this incontestable fact, that the man of leisure becomes daily more reluctant to undergo fatigue, that he eagerly seeks for what he calls the comfortable, that is to say for every means of sparing the organs.” Considering that reading is hard on the eyes, the brain, and the rest of the body (which is forced by the act of reading into “various fatiguing attitudes”), he predicts that all printed matter will soon be replaced by recorded matter. Authors will become “Narrators” or “Tellers”; journalists will become announcers; interviews and speeches will be recorded on phonographs to be played for the public later.
The Bibliophile’s vision of the bookless future is in some ways prescient. Radio, and more recently podcasts and audiobooks, vie in popularity with their print equivalents. But they don’t seem poised to replace text completely. What Uzanne and his Bibliophile do not foresee is the rise of visual culture in the twentieth century — the evolution of cinema, television, and the internet, where images of all kinds swarm our screens.
The phonography of the future will be at the service of our grandchildren on all the occasions of life. Every restaurant-table will be provided with its phonographic collection; the public carriages, the waiting-rooms, the state-rooms of steamers, the halls and chambers of hotels will contain phonographotecks for the use of travellers. The railways will replace the parlor car by a sort of Pullman Circulating Library, which will cause travellers to forget the weariness of the way while leaving their eyes free to admire the landscapes through which they are passing.
It’s curious to consider that the new technology of being able to record and reproduce sound made Uzanne think books would soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps his dire predictions about the end of books can help us put more recent dire predictions in perspective. Audio and video may take up some of the time we’d otherwise spend reading; yet the technology of the book always seems to prevail. Obviously, it did back when Uzanne was writing, but even today it marches stubbornly on.