Reading Future Reading today, an essay in the New Yorker on the history of technologies for creating, publishing, organising and consuming the written word, from Mesopotamia to Google’s ambitious project to digitise the world’s books I was put in mind of Walter Ong’s startling conjecture. This was commented upon by Ulf Hannerz in Cultural Complexity – "at the beginning of history, it may have taken ten or a hundred thousand years for human knowledge to double, while at the time of his writing it took about fiftenn years. If this is true, knowledge has more than doubled again since then, and probably the speed of growth accelerated further yet" (Hannerz 1992:31).

Makes it feel hard to catch up, let alone keep up, doesn’t it?

The New Yorker article contains some other fascinating nuggets:

  • Some estimate that 32 million books have been published but Google reckons that number is nearer 100 million – why such an enormous disparity?
  • It is estimated that between five and ten per cent of known books are currently in print, and twenty per cent—those produced between the beginning of print, in the fifteenth century, and 1923—are out of copyright. The rest, perhaps seventy-five per cent of all books ever printed, are “orphans,” possibly still covered by copyright protections but out of print and pretty much out of mind.
  • Sixty million Britons have a hundred and sixteen million public-library books at their disposal, while more than 1.1 billion Indians have only thirty-six million. Poverty, in other words, is embodied in lack of print as well as in lack of food