The Battle of the Books
In the long history of the book, the mass-produced volumes of our time constitute only a single chapter. More remain to be written.
In 1704, Jonathan Swift imagined a literary contest for the ages, in the form of a “battle of the books” between the Ancients and the Moderns in the royal library at St. James, where the works of Aristotle, Virgil, and other classical giants were struggling to maintain their place on the shelves against a barbarous onslaught of new books, pamphlets, journals, and other literary ephemera. Almost 300 years before the first Web browser appeared, Swift seems to have anticipated the age of information overload.
Imagine what Swift might have made of our present era, when every year human beings disgorge an amount of data equivalent to more than 30,000 times the contents of the Library of Congress? Perhaps the closest corollary to Swift’s heroic Ancients today may be our old ink-on-paper books, those time-honored relics whose cultural supremacy now seems under siege by a binary blitzkrieg of blogs, tweets, social networks, and other emerging forms of digital dross.
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Alex Wright is a writer and researcher at The New York Times and is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (2007).more from this author >>