Posted by: ktzefr | September 4, 2012

10 Cool Facts about the Written Word

I love books.  Real books with paper pages.  I like the sound of a page turning, the scent of the paper, and the feeling of accomplishment when I close a heavy tome after having read the last sentence.  But…I must admit that these days I probably spend more time in front of a screen than with an open book. 


How important is the written word?  (The following facts are taken from Kevin Kelly’s “From Print to Pixel” (Smithsonian, July-August 2010).

1) America’s roots spring from documents — the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and, indirectly, the Bible.   Kelly says the “country’s success depended on high levels of literacy, freedom of the press, allegiance to the rule of law…and a common language across a continent.  American prosperity and liberty grew out of a culture of reading and writing.”

2) The first books were dictated by the authors, and scribes wrote down the letters in a continuous string likethiswithnoseparationbetweenwords.  There were no spaces between words until the 11th century.

3) Only a few people were accomplished at reading these continuous strings of words and they read aloud to others; being able to read silently to oneself was considered an amazing talent.

4) Gutenberg’s printing press (1440) changed the world.  This technology expanded the number of words available and authors no longer had to compose only scholarly works.  They could produce cheap books and write all sorts of stuff.  Thus…

5)  The romance novel was invented in 1740.

6) The pen truly became “mightier than the sword” as ideas on paper could gain enough influence to topple a king or a pope. 

7) By 1910 three-quarters of the towns in America with more than 2,500 residents had a public library.

8) Today we carry screens, rather than books, in our pockets and briefcases and purses — 4.5 billion of them.

9) Educators worried back in the middle of the last century that television would create a generation that would not be able to read.  But the screens in our lives have actually increased the amount of time people spend reading — almost triple since 1980.

10) By 2008 more than a trillion pages were added to the World Wide Web.  This grows by several billion a day and each of these pages was written by somebody. 

What do you think about this new way of reading and writing?  Many people these days think nothing of texting, reading, or otherwise fiddling with a cellphone at social events.  Okay or rude…in your book?

Click here to read Kevin Kelly’s complete essay from Smithsonian magazine’s 40th anniversary issue


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