Sunday Book-Thought 32

Impermanence is reflected in society in many subtle ways. A single dramatic example is the impact of the knowledge explosion on that classic knowledge-container, the book.
As knowledge has become more plentiful and less permanent, we have witnessed the virtual disappearance of the solid old durable leather binding, replaced at first by cloth and later by paper covers. The book itself, like much of the information it holds, has become more transient.
A decade ago, communications systems designer Sol Cornberg, a radical prophet in the field of library technology, declared that reading would soon cease to be a primary form of information intake. “Reading and writing,” he suggested, “will become obsolete skills.” (Ironically, Mr. Cornberg’s wife is a novelist.)
Whether or not he is correct, one fact is plain: the incredible expansion of knowledge implies that each book (alas, this one included) contains a progressively smaller fraction of all that is known. And the paperback revolution, by making inexpensive editions available everywhere, lessens the scarcity value of the book at precisely the very moment that the increasingly rapid obsolescence of knowledge lessens its long-term informational value. Thus, in the United States a paperback appears simultaneously on more than 100,000 newsstands, only to be swept away by another tidal wave of publications delivered a mere thirty days later. The book thus approaches the transience of the monthly magazine. Indeed, many books are no more than “one-shot” magazines.
At the same time, the public’s span of interest in a book – even a very popular book – is shrinking. Thus, for example, the life span of best sellers on The New York Times list is rapidly declining. There are marked irregularities from year to year, and some books manage to buck the tide. Nevertheless, if we examine the first four years for which full data on the subject is available, 1953-1956, and compare this with a similar period one decade later, 1963-1966, we find that the average best seller in the earlier period remained on the list a full 18.8 weeks. A decade later this had shrunk to 15.7 weeks. Within a ten-year-period, the life expectancy of the average best seller had shrunk by nearly one-sixth.
We can understand such trends only if we grasp the elemental underlying truth. We are witnessing an historic process that will inevitably change man’s psyche. For across the board, from cosmetics to cosmology, from Twiggy-type trivia to the triumphant facts of technology, our inner images of reality, responding to the acceleration of change outside ourselves, are becoming shorter-lived, more temporary. We are creating and using up ideas and images at a faster and faster pace. Knowledge, like people, places, things and organizational forms, is becoming disposable.
Alvin Toffler


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