Genji and the Printing Press

The relation of technology to time is a theme that’s come up more than once in these essays, and for good reason. On the one hand, many of the challenges we face as industrial civilization lurches down the long curve of its decline and fall come from the mismatch between the short timeframe that governs so many of our collective decisions and the long reach the consequences of those decisions so often have.

On the other, a crucial aspect of our predicament just now – though it’s not often recognized as such – is the fact that most of our modern technologies are very poorly adapted to the long term. Most of the technologies used by today’s industrial societies depend directly or indirectly on nonrenewable resources that, in the broad scheme of things, simply won’t be around all that much longer. Those technologies that can’t be reworked to use entirely renewable inputs, or that stop being economical once the costs of renewables has to be factored in, will go away in the decades and centuries to come, with profound impacts on human life.

In that light, it’s comforting to realize that our species has managed to come up with a certain number of extremely durable technologies. Agriculture, despite the assertions of its modern neoprimitivist critics, is at least capable of being one of those. The rice paddies of eastern Asia, the wheat fields of Syria and the olive orchards and vineyards of Greece and Italy, to name only a few examples, have proven sustainable over many millennia, and will likely still be viable long after today’s idiotically unsustainable petrochemical agriculture has become a footnote in history books written in languages that haven’t evolved yet.

There are other examples. One in particular, though, plays an important role in my own hopes for the future, not least because I work with it every day: the technology of the book.

One volume on my bookshelf right now makes as good an example as any. It’s an English translation of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s first and greatest novels. It was written by a Japanese noblewoman, Murasaki Shikibu, at the beginning of the eleventh century for a circle of friends, and wove together her wry reflections on court life with a sense of the impermanence of all earthly things. Like so many novels of an earlier age, it demands more patience than most of today’s readers like to give to fiction; its storyline unfolds at a leisurely pace, following the path of its decidedly unheroic hero, Prince Genji, through the social milieu of his time. Think of it as War and Peace without the war; the political struggles that frame Genji’s career, sending him from the capital into exile and then returning him to the upper reaches of power, all take place without a hint of violence.

This is all the more striking because the society in which Murasaki lived was well on its way to a violent decline and fall. Her lifetime marked the zenith of the age Japanese historians call the Heian period. Over the next century and a half, the Japanese economy came apart, public order disintegrated in a rising spiral of violence, and the government lost control of the provinces where the new samurai class was taking shape. The civil wars that began in 1156 shredded what was left of Heian society and plunged Japan into a dark age four and a half centuries long.

Countless cultural treasures vanished during those years, but The Tale of Genji was not among them. One of the advantage of books is that, properly made, they are extremely durable; another is that they have very little value as plunder, and so tend to get left behind when looters come through. Both these advantages worked in favor of Murasaki’s novel, and so did the patient efforts of generations of Buddhist monks and nuns who did for their culture what their equivalents in Dark Age Europe did a few centuries earlier.

It’s not the only volume on my bookshelves that came through the fall of a civilization intact. A good shelf and a half of Greek philosophy and mathematics hid out in Irish monasteries while Rome crashed to ruin and nomads fought over the rubble, and so did an assortment of literary works from Greece and Rome, including a couple – Homer comes to mind – that came out of the dark ages before Greece and Rome, and so get extra credit. The Chinese classics on another shelf went through more than that; Chinese civilization has immense staying power but its political systems tend to be fragile, and such seasoned survivors as Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching have shrugged off half a dozen cycles of decline and fall.

Still, the granddaddy of them all is next to the Greek classics. The epic of Gilgamesh was first composed well over five thousand years ago by some forgotten poet of Sumer, the oldest literate society anybody has yet been able to find. It’s not something most people read in school, which is ironic, because the epic of Gilgamesh is the kind of story we most need to read these days: a story about limits. When he first strides into the story, Gilgamesh is about as far from Prince Genji as a fictional character can get; superhumanly strong, with an ego to match, he makes Conan the Barbarian look like Caspar Milquetoast; but his ego sends him on a long journey through love, loss, and a shattering confrontation with the human condition that leaves little of his arrogance intact. It’s a story well worth reading even, or especially, today.

The astonishing thing, at least to me, is that I can take that book from its place on the shelf today and read a story that had audiences on the edge of their seats five thousand years ago. Precious little else from Sumer survives at all; five thousand years is a long time, especially in a corner of the world where more civilizations have risen and fallen than just about anywhere else. That’s what I mean about the durability of books as a technology of information storage and transfer. Even though individual books break down over time, it costs little to manufacture them and little except time to copy them, and they weather copying mistakes remarkably well; unlike today’s data storage methods, where a very small number of mistakes can render data hopelessly corrupt, a book can still pass on its meaning even when the copy is riddled with scribal errors.

All this bears directly on the predicament of industrial society. Our age will certainly leave its share of legacies to the far future, but most of those are the opposite of helpful. (I am thinking especially of the nuclear waste we are heaping up in “temporary” storage facilities, which will likely be lethally radioactive dead zones surrounded by cow skulls on sticks 25,000 years from now.) Of our positive achievements, on the other hand, the ones most likely to reach our descendants 5000 years from now are the ones written in books.

Thus I’d like to suggest that books, and the technologies that produce and preserve them, might well deserve a place well up on the list of useful things that need to be preserved through the long decline ahead of us. I wish it made sense to count on public libraries, but those venerable institutions have gotten the short end of the stick now for decades, and the dire fiscal straits faced by most state and local governments in the US now do not bode well for their survival. (The county next to the one where I live, for example, has already shuttered its entire library system, and handwaving has replaced any meaningful plan to reopen it.) Like so many other things of value, book technology may have to be saved by individuals and local voluntary groups, using their own time and limited resources.

It might come down to copying books with pen and ink onto handmade paper, but there may well be another viable option. Letterpress technology is simple enough to make and maintain – the presses that sparked a communications revolution in Europe in the fourteenth century were built entirely with hand tools – and brings with it the power to produce a thousand copies of a book in the time a good scribe would need to produce one. With printing presses, something like the book culture of colonial America – with local bookstores, libraries open to anyone willing to pay a modest subscription, and private book collections – comes within reach, at least in regions that maintain some level of stability and public order. This may not seem like much in an age of internet downloads, but it beats the stuffing out of Dark Age Europe, when most people could count on living out their lives without turning the pages of a book.

Now of course there are plenty of people who argue that the age of internet downloads is worth preserving, or that some other more advanced technology would be a better place to start. It seems to me, though, that at least two factors argue against this. The first is that all of the more complex data storage technologies presuppose an extensive technological base, supported by plenty of energy and an economy diverse enough that resources can be diverted from survival to less critical needs. The crises looming in our future make the secure maintenance of these conditions something of a gamble against long odds.

These complex technologies, furthermore, are not something that individuals and local communities can tackle on their own. That makes it a good deal less likely that anybody will get around to tackling them at all. As the collective response to the latest round of economic crises has demonstrated all too well, short-term crisis management and pedaling in place have elbowed aside any more thoughtful or proactive response to future needs. A society in which executives are shaking down their bankrupt corporations for one more round of million-dollar bonuses, while governments pour money they don’t have and credibility they’re rapidly losing down a growing list of ratholes, is not a society in which the funds and resources to retool much of anything for a sustainable future will be forthcoming from above. That likely means that whatever gets done will have to be done by individuals – and the sort of local, decentralized, individual approach to the survival of book technology I’ve suggested in this post might make a workable template for the kind of strategy that could work for many other things as well.