I'll probably never know who left this book on the river wall along Wacker Drive, just where it stops going west and begins turning south (or, I suppose, where it stops going north, coming the other way, and turns east).
Nor will I know why it was left there, exposed to the elements, for quite a while by the time I came by — far beyond any rescue. It was chilling, to see a book so abused. No doubt the product of carelessness, though it did seem to symbolize something larger, a place we are approaching in our society. Already we've seen books sold by the pound, or with their covers ripped off and bundled with twine as some interior designer's daft idea of decoration. You walk into Half Price Books, and just sense that printed books are worth less. Not worthless, not yet anyway. But worth less than even a few years ago.
I'm not going to lament the printed word—the electronic word will carry on just fine, just as we can still fill up our cars without gas station attendants. Seneca pressed his words in wax with a stylus — the original meaning of "book" was "writing tablet" (a very old, Teutonic word, The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that "book" and "beech" share a root, and that perhaps the tablets were made from the bark of beech trees).
In other words, the manner of writing has always changed, so let's not get too bent out of shape that the process continues. The words remain. The influence of the printed word will continue as countless ghosts in the electronic machine, just as the chapters of books now are thought to reflect the individual scrolls that were once gathered together into "books."
It can be argued the form doesn't ultimately matter. It is what is being said, not the medium it is being said in.
That is mostly true. But not entirely.
The form had value. The drawbacks of books—expensive to print, unable to be corrected—were also their glory, also exactly why they were cherished. Scarcity creates value, and you couldn't get a copy of "Moby-Dick" everywhere you go. Now you can. The reason so much time and effort was put into making books as good as they could be (Sometimes. Let's not overstate the case) is you can't correct them. You have to get them right, because they are supposed to be around for a long time. Were supposed to be around for a long time. Now they're raw material in art projects and, I assume, someday, fuel.
Books will migrate entirely onto pads and phones and what have you, but it will not be the same, and hybrid forms will quickly emerge that better use those mediums. People will enjoy whatever we call the new art form—maybe "books” still, the way we call the control panels on our cars "dashboards" even though there is no horse to dash and kick up mud. We will still be moved by them, and will look at our paper books with puzzlement and disinterest, the way people today look at player piano scrolls and stereopticon slides.
They also have flaws. Books don't hold up well to the elements, for instance. Of course, they don't break apart when dropped, either. Different technology, different advantages and drawbacks. But technology can't be fought. Technology wins, eventually.
The book, by the way, was a novel by Felix J. Palma called The Map of Time.