The chattering classes (a phrase coined by Auberon Waugh, son of novelist Evelyn Waugh) continue to debate the future of print. Literacy itself is on the upswing, as text messaging pushes aside voice mail and crawling chyrons take up increasing acreage on our TV screens, so pundits are less concerned than they once were about images replacing words completely. They’re still worked up about how those words will be delivered to us, though. Will everyone be reading eBooks or …. what to call them? Apparently we’ll soon need a retronym to clarify what we’re talking about, much as we now must specify “acoustic guitar” or “analog clock.” For now I’ll stick to calling them what they are, thanks—books.
The topic has been so much discussed that it’s grown more than a little tiresome. We at Island Books are happy to sell you a story in bits and bytes or on paper, as you prefer, and we try not make a big song and dance about it. More interesting, perhaps, is the question of how writers are creating their stories. That is, how does a tale turn from a mere fizzing in the mind into words that can be read?
Things started, of course, with the oral tradition. Bards around campfires told and retold stories for thousands of years before the idea of writing was born. The earliest examples of stories being permanently preserved in print come from around 2600 BC, when the Sumerians, Akkadians, and Egyptians began pressing cuneiform into clay tablets and carving hieroglyphs on stone walls. The most significant of these is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale of creation and destruction that still speaks to modern audiences. Papyrus, parchment, and paper were developed as the centuries passed, as were various alphabets that made writing easier, but authors continued to produce work by hand. Even after the development of the printing press in the 15th century, a story had to start as a manuscript. It wasn’t until 1883 that this changed.
That was the year that Mark Twain employed a newfangled invention and submitted a typewritten copy of Life on the Mississippi to his publisher. He’d handwritten it first and then had a secretary type it up. The technology took off soon after, and it wasn’t long before authors began composing right on the machine. Around the turn of the 20th century, Henry James dictated many of his novels to a typist, and fifty years later, Jack Kerouac famously bashed out On the Road in just two weeks in front of the keyboard. Harking back to ancient times, he typed onto a continuous scroll of paper instead of onto individual sheets.
Soon another innovation took root. As described in a recent Slate article, English thriller writer Len Deighton became the first person to write a novel via a word processor in 1968. The device weighed 200 pounds and had to be hoisted into his home with a crane. Much like Twain, Deighton required the assistance of a professional; it was a woman named Ellenor Handley who actually entered the words into the contraption so that fans could read Bomber.
Nowadays we’re all using computers to write, or most of us are. A few holdouts, including Will Self and Cormac McCarthy, cling to their Underwoods and Olivettis (Olivettii?), but I certainly didn’t hand-write this before you read it. What’s next? Well, readers in Japan are enjoying something called the “cell phone novel,” consisting of short chapters of under a hundred words sent by text message. Presumably most, if not all of these are “written” by a pair of thumbs dancing across a handheld device. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the proliferation of this trend, but I won’t discount it. People probably laughed at the first scribe who switched from counting sheep to telling stories, and look how far that got us.