The Role of Books in Protecting History

Nowadays, books have become such a ubiquitous and almost obsolete object, that it is interesting to re-trace the evolution of books and the impact it has begotten upon societies throughout the centuries. Books, particularly before the invention of the internet, have played a major role in the transmission of information between generations and the spread of new ideas. Without books, history is silent, knowledge does not get passed down, and science never evolves. Like author Barbara W. Tuchman claimed, “Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. […] Books are humanity in print.”

I found Mr. Goodwillie’s explanations of how various civilizations invented their own idea of how a book should be created and what information it should contain fascinating. Although starting with the desire to spread the truths found in the Bible, written contents slowly deviated from religion and Christianity to share practical knowledge (seen, for instance, in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie) and/or knowledge about the world (Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). It’s interesting to think that without book innovation and the constant improvement civilizations added to it, our current society would know nothing about history. It makes me question if the digital age we now live in is going to play a similar role in protecting history, or destroy what books had been accomplishing for centuries.

Looking at Diderot’s “Encyclopédie”

During our class in the 24 hour reading room, one of the books we looked at was Denis Diderot’s “Encylopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers”. Published in France between 1751 and 1752, it was a general encyclopedia that also gave instruction on how to perform almost any task. We studied a long excerpt from this text in my French Literature class, and found that certain entries were infused with specific philosophy instead of simply unbiased disseminations of information.

This Encyclopedia provided thoughts that were considered to be controversial at the time, reflecting theories of the Enlightenment. According to Diderot, its aim was to “change the way people think.” The excerpt from my French class argued a concept that was widely debated at the time and still is today: if animals have souls. It also explicated René Descartes’s theory of animals being machines due to the way in which they live their lives by ‘mindlessly’ performing actions to sustain their survival – actions that could be dictated to a machine in steps.

Looking at one of the volumes in class today, I was fascinated by the versatile nature of this text. Not only do its in-depth instructions for certain tasks give us a window into what was valued at the time, but the philosophy also provides us with the emerging schools of thought. These, at the time, were all provided in an encyclopedia, which probably wouldn’t have been considered a cultural artifact. It raises the question of how or in what ways could our modern encyclopedia be deemed as antiquated in another 200 years from now?