Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

In 1893 William Morris told an audience at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “within fifty years printing books would be an extinct art — we should be carrying all our books about in bottles with patent stoppers. While there was still a chance, [we] should try and produce a few specimens of what was really good printing”. And of course that’s just what he did at The Kelmscott Press. His talk was about the history of printing, and his bottle forecast was ironic — as Jan Marsh tells us in the Times Literary Supplement for 30 October 2015. His meaning is somewhat clarified by Edward Burne-Jones who wrote in a letter that in conversation Morris “railed fiercely against the invention of printing and gave it a hundred years at most to come to an end. Already said he the magazines are driving books out of the field — presently newspapers will have killed magazines — then the telephone will come — bottles of talk — & the newspapers will be ended & that’s a comfort — as a centipede eats a cockroach & a cockroach eats a bug — a hundred years will do it said he.”

Morris’ “bottles of talk” are clearly sound recordings, and we can make the small leap to “books in bottles with patent stoppers” as audio books or even e-books. He wasn’t far off with his 100 year forecast, but as we know e-books haven’t managed to kill off the printed book yet. Just why such a famous printer should have railed thus against the invention of printing is not altogether clear to me. Maybe the medievalist in him wished that everything still had to be handwritten.

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