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    Too many books: “One of the great diseases.”

    Never has it been this easy, nor cost so little, to publish books, which digital technology causes to issue forth in floods.

    An overcrowded market is the anguish of authors.

    “One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that… overcharge the world” with an “abundance of idle matter,” is the complaint of English author Barnaby Rich.

    “A vast chaos and confusion of books; we are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning,” is the lament of Robert Burton, another English author.

    Anyone who uses a computer to assemble an adequate number of words arranged in a reasonably coherent manner has virtually prepared a book for publication. A publisher formats it, at little cost, for printing on a digital press, also at little cost; or publishes it paperless in the ether world at almost no cost.

    Our new publishing technology has eliminated the use of a lot of heavy metal, leaving us using words for things and processes that no longer exist, outside of museums. We still talk of type, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, among other things, “Pieces of metal with raised letters or characters on their upper surface, for use in letterpress printing.” But other than octogenarians, who among us ever seen, let alone used, these small pieces of metal? And is there anything still printed on a letterpress? We sometimes talk about typing on our computer keyboards, but real typing involved hitting the keys of a typewriter to cause metal type to strike paper, leaving impressions. We use the terms upper case and lower case to denote capital and regular letters of the alphabet, but it’s been a hundred years or so since printers sorted by hand their pieces of metal for individual letters into the upper and lower sections of their type-storage cases. Gone, too, with the dinosaurs are those big Linotype machines that replaced type of individual letters with lines of type, cast in lead slugs; in newspaper use, typically two inches long by about an inch high and perhaps one-twelfth of an inch thick, as I recall. These cumbersome mahcines live only in the memories of old time printers who can still almost feel the heat as a chain lowers a bar of lead into a hot pot where it is melted, ready for casting.

    The flood of books brought by the digital displacement of all this metal is remarkable. The number of books published in the United States almost doubled in a five-year period, from 172,000 in 2005 to 328,000 in 2010, according to Wikipedia.

    But authors’ complaints about technology-driven, overcrowded book markets are nothing new. Messrs. Rich and Burton were reacting 400 years ago to the revolution in printing and book publishing technology introduced by Johannes Gutenberg with his Gutenberg press and its moveable type. Rich wrote his complaint in 1,600, and Burton’s lament followed in 1,628.

    Should you wish to check my source for these quotes, you will find them on page 65 of Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Age of Reason Begins: A History of European Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo and Descartes: 1558-1648,” volume seven of their monumental 10-volume, 10,000-page “The Story of Civilization.”

    TAGS Books, authors, printing, publishing, type, digital technology, Linotype, Gutenberg, Robert Burton, Burnaby Rich

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