A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts, still called “leaves”, imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and your hear the voice of another person–perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millenia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.
Some of the earliest authors wrote on clay. Cuneiform writing, the remote ancestor of the Western alphabet, was invented in the Near East about 5,000 years ago. Its purpose was to keep records: the purchase of grain, the sale of land, the triumphs of the king, the statutes of the priests, the positions of the stars, the prayers to the gods. For thousands of years, writing was chiseled into clay and stone, scratched onto wax or bark or leather; painted on bamboo or papyrus or silk–but always one copy at a time and, except for the inscriptions on monuments, always for a tiny readership. Then in China, between the second and sixth centuries, paper, ink and printing with carved wooden blocks were all invented, permitting many copies of a work to be made and distributed. It took a thousands years for the idea to catch on in remote and backward Europe. Then, suddenly, books were being printed all over the world. Just before the invention of movable type, around 1450, there were no more than a few tens of thousands of books in all of Europe, all handwritten; about as many as China in 100 B.C., and a tenth as many as in the Great Library of Alexandria. Fifty years later, around 1500, there were ten million printed books. Learning had become available to anyone who could read. Magic was everywhere.
More recently, books, especially paperbacks, have been printed in massive and inexpensive editions. For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the origin of species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things. Books are like seeds. They can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil.
The great libraries of the world contain millions of volumes, the equivalent of about [10 to the 14th] bits of information in words, perhaps [10 to the 15th] bits in pictures. This is ten thousand times more information than in our genes, and about ten times more than in our brains. If I finish a book a week, I will read only a few thousand books in my lifetime, about a tenth of a percent of the contents of the greatest libraries of our time. The trick is to know which books to read. The information in books is not preprogrammed at birth but constantly changed, amended by events, adapted to the world. It is now twenty-three centuries since the founding of the Alexandrian Library. If there were no books, no written records, think how prodigious a time twenty-three centuries would be. With four generations per century, twenty-three centuries occupies almost a hundred generations of human beings.
If information could be passed on merely by word of mouth, how little we should know of our past, how slow would be our progress! Everything would depend on what ancient feelings we had accidentally been told about, and how accurate the account was. Past information might be revered, but in successive retellings it would become progressively more muddled and eventually lost. Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species.
Cosmos, published in 1980, waarl Sagan as a companion piece to his TV series of the same name. The book’s thirteen chapters each correspond to episodes from the program. The two works cover, in some detail, a staggering spread of different topics, representing a substantial introduction to most key areas of science, as well as many areas of natural and human history. Moreover, it’s a testament not only to the breadth of Sagan’s knowledge and discipline-defying imagination, but also to his status as perhaps the pop intellectual of his era. Cosmos, like its author, is defined by its masterful balance of informativeness and accessibility, taking massive ideas and explaining them concisely and thoroughly.
The excerpt above comes to us from Chapter 11 of the series, entitled “The Persistence of Memory”, and touching on the brain, its evolution, and the ways in which it absorbs and stores information. One of the most important ways, of course, being its ability to annex that information in books. Given our recycling of these words, or say, the fact that I can’t help but hear his voice behind them, Sagan’s argument here seems like self-fulfilling prophecy. For those of you who dig visuals along with those words, check out the original episode, in its entirety below.