PRINT November 1991



AS MATERIAL OBJECTS they are almost worthless. Their specific gravity is high, and to carry even a few of them can be an uncomfortable matter. If you move, transporting your books costs more than they’re worth, and rearranging them in their new home is a nightmare. Books are a burden measurable in kilos, cubic feet, and hours. We submit to them as to an addiction: we seem in permanent need of their strings of letters, opening them up again and again to pick some of those letters out.

A Martian, in fact, or some other illiterate, might suppose that a book is a vast heap from which we gather letters one by one. The term, “literature,” which means “a lot of letters,” would only confirm that opinion. We addicts know better: a book piles up letters only for the information encoded in their arrangement. This is its value: as information, or software. Some books contain very valuable information. And this is why we tolerate them.

But this is extraordinary. According to the second law of thermodynamics, nature is a system that tends to lose information. A book, then, is an unnatural object. Living beings transmit genetic information to their offspring, but not acquired information from person to person, denies the laws of biology. In fact a book, any book, is a miracle, and we should fall on our knees every time we pick one up.

Relatively few of us actually do so, of course, though there certainly are people, even in this computer age, who attach some glimmer of reverence to the act of reading. But we also know that our books will ultimately fall into ashes just as we ourselves will, and are just as much subject to the laws of nature and of life as our bodies are. The miracle is temporary: the attempt to defy nature, to defy death, is in the long run doomed to failure in everything we do, in books as in paintings, music, architecture, science, and technology. All these energies will in time be devoured by time, by entropy, and will be forgotten.

On one level, though, books are sillier than those other efforts, for the information they store is encoded in letters. Letters are signs that represent the sounds of spoken language. The information in a book must go through the code of language before it can be written, and to get at the information in a book you have to learn two codes: that of the language and that of the letters. This detour from thought to book by way of language is quite unnecessary, and we already have sign systems that avoid it. Numerically literate people around the world, for example, can understand each others’ equations without knowing each others’ languages. Furthermore, not only do letters mean sounds, but they have to be aligned in rows, like pearls on a necklace. Books are linear and one-dimensional in structure. This is why they hold infinitely less information than two-dimensional surface structures like images, which themselves carry infinitely less information than three-dimensional structures like TV boxes. This is also why books are so heavy: being one-dimensional, they have to use vast numbers of lines to carry their information. In short, books are inefficient.

Most letter addicts probably won’t accept this reasonable conclusion. The detour through language on the way from thought to book is what they love most: the information itself may even count less than the particular way in which it has been pressed into word, sequence, sonority. When we open a book we participate in a conversation that has carried and elaborated information almost since the beginning of our species. More—we become responsible for its continuation. When we look at an image our eyes scan the surface in circles, and the circle enforces eternal repetition. In a book, on the other hand, our eyes follow the lines of the text, progressively collecting the information, and thus the line carries us toward the future. Each sentence, each argument, demands the next one. The book gives us a temporal structure in which every instant is unique, and every moment lost is an opportunity lost forever. In reading a book, we experience the dramatic urgency of living.

There is something even more exciting about the linear structure of books: each row of letters points to something outside it. The line of letters “it rains” points through the English language to what you see on a gray day outside your window. But the lines also point in a quite different direction. The whole book points at its final full stop—that is what linearity is all about—but beyond that full stop the book points at its reader. Each book is a hand that reaches out for our own hand, and if we throw a book away, or even if we leave one unopened, it is as if we had amputated a hand stretched out to us.

The nonbookish reader pooh-poohs all this, and martials, perhaps the following argument: before the invention of the alphabet, three and a half millenia ago, there were two types of culture. An oral (mythical) culture stored information in sound, in spoken words, and a material (magical) one stored it in hard objects. Sound, the movement of air, was fluid and malleable—to speak is almost a natural human talent—but it was fleeting, and its very fluidity opened it to noise, which deforms information. Objects like stone and bones were better storehouses of information (a Paleolithic knife still contains the instruction “cut”), but it took a good deal of effort to imprint that information in them. And then came the alphabet, which rendered sound visible. It unified the oral and the material, and it overcame them both, opening the way toward historical culture. It was an incredible invention. But today we can store sound in tapes or records, and we can imprint hard objects relatively easily. We have highly efficient ways of storing and transmitting information. Why do we need the alphabet? The fact that books continue to overflow in an inflationary wave, destroying our forests, only shows how reactionary we are, how incapable of understanding the communications revolution going on around us.

In this view, the future goes as follows: an elite of scientists and technicians uses numbers (algorithms) to articulate and communicate information. The majority is informed (and manipulated) by images—TV and advertising, say—that tend to become ever more perfect. And a few remain addicted to letters, and abhor both the numbers on one side and the images on the other. As for art, eventually the scientists’ and technicians’ numbers will be transcoded into images, and those numerically generated images will be constitutable as alternative virtual spaces that future artists may transform into new worlds. There will be no room for letters in such worlds, and books will disappear.

Such a vision cannot be accepted by those who love books. Will the majestic river of letters passed down to us through Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, dividing and redividing into countless distributaries, and now reaching us in its maturity, stagnate into a muddy, swampy delta? For such lovers of literature I write this song, in praise of books, in unreasonable letters.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the École Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.