But don’t be alarmed, it already happened in 1894.
The other day, I stumbled across a most extraordinary article in the August 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine, entitled The End of Books, by a certain Octave Uzanne, with illustrations by the prolific futurist illustrator Albert Robida.
Louis Octave Uzanne (Auxerre, 14 September 1851 – Saint-Cloud, 31 October 1931) was a prolific French journalist and author, one of those larger-than-life figures of the literary scene in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Portrait of Louis Octave Uzanne by the Catalan artist Ramon Casas
His first notable work was a four-volume compendium of lesser-known 17th and 18th century writers, which later expanded to over twenty books in all. He contributed articles to l’Echo de Paris and other French periodicals, as well as The Studio, the Magazine of Art and Scribner’s. He collaborated with the exhuberant Albert Robida, whose futurist trilogy Le Vingtième Siècle (1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (1887) and Le Vingtième siècle: la vie éléctrique (1890) more or less single-handedly defined the steampunk genre, a good century before K. W. Jeter coined the term. (Robida’s work deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.)
Life in the Twentieth Century according to Albert Robida. Left: Front cover of the first edition of Albert Robida’s Le Vingtième siècle, 1883. Centre: Modern house. Right: Paris, Southern Tube station.
Uzanne wrote books extolling the beauty of French women and fashion as well as another extolling celibacy. (His attitude towards women is ambiguous, but he clearly subscribed to the notion that the world was better off in the capable hands of men, stating “The curious and paradoxical physiologist has argued that the woman genius does not exist, and when such genius manifests itself it is a hoax of nature; in this sense, she is male.” According to Patricia Townley Matthews in “Passionate Discontent”, a study of study of the relationship between gender and genius in late nineteenth-century French Symbolism, movement that extolled the genius of the “poète maudit”, the mad creative genius, as long as he was a man – if a woman dared try something similar in the arts, she was dismissed as hysterical, and possibly interned – Uzanne admitted that while the female figure were useful in allegorical and decorative art, female artists were mediocre and inferior.
Cross-Channel Victorian misogyny aside, Uzanne’s article for Scribner’s is little short of visionary. The article begins with a group of eight gentlemen, Uzanne in their midst, who have just attended a conference where Sir William Thomson, eminent British physicist and professor at Glasgow university, has cheerfully (one imagines) predicted the exhausting of the sun and the end of the world in ten million years. The gentlemen decide, in light of that particular bit of news, that dinner at the Junior Athenaeum will, if not avert the coming end, at least pleasantly account for the rest of the evening. In turns, they debate subjects of interest. James Whittemore predicts the rise of the Americas and the decline of the Old World. Vegetarian Julius Pollock speculates on the “success of certain interesting chemical experiments transforming the conditions of our social life.” He imagines a vegetarian future, where nutrition will come in the form of powders, syrups, pellets and biscuits, bringing on the disappearance of slaughterhouses. (Humourist John Pollock retorts that creatures will continue to eat and be eaten – clearly, he must have ordered a steak.) Symbolist painter Arthur Blackcross, founder of the School of Aesthetes of Tomorrow,  rails against modern art’s immanent decline into mediocrity, (a perpetual complaint; there is no period in history, it seems, but has lamented the end of art) predicting that art will become a closed aristocracy of a dozen individuals per generation, while cheap mass-produced imagery “…art photography in colors, photogravure, illustrated books, will suffice for the gratification of the masses.” There will be no more painters in the 21st century he fiercely proclaims, before turning to Uzanne and asking him to lighten the atmosphere with his wisdom on books.
Uzanne of course made no demur. Here are a few excerpts:
“If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.”
He goes on to predict that “Printing, which Rivarol so judiciously called the artillery of thought… is threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.”
After a chorus of “astonished oh’s! and ironical ah’s!”, Uzanne goes on to detail the inconveniences of reading and adding “phonography will probably be the destruction of printing. Our eyes are made to see and reflect on the beauties of nature, not to wear themselves out reading texts…”
“There will be registering cylinders as light as celluloid penholders, capable of containing five or six hundred words, and working upon very tenuous axles, and occupying not more than five square inches; all the vibrations of the voice will be reproduced in them; we shall attain to perfection in this apparatus as surely as we have obtained precision in the smallest and most ornamental watches.”
As to electricity, that will often be found on the individual himself. Each will work his pocket apparatus by a fluent current ingeniously set in motion; the whole system may be kept in a simple opera-glass case, and suspended by a strap from the shoulder.”
“… the author will become his own publisher.” He will “talk his work, fixing it upon registering cylinders. He will himself put these cylinders on sale; they will be delivered in cases for the consumption of hearers.”
“Libraries will be transformed into phonographotecks, or rather phonostereotecks; they will contain the works of human genius on properly labelled cylinders, methodically arranged in little cases, rows upon rows, on shelves.”
“The Narrators, blithe authors that they will be, will relate the current events of current life, will make a study of rendering the sounds that accompany… the exchange of commonplace conversation, the joyful exclamations of the crowd, the dialects of strange people.”
“Hearers will not regret the time when they were readers; with eyes wearied, with countenances refreshed, their air of careless freedom will witness to the benefits of the contemplated life. Stretching upon sofas or cradled in rocking-chairs, they will enjoy in silence the marvellous adventures which the flexible tube will conduct to ears dilated with interest.”
Entertainment in the twentieth century. Left: Evening listening, from a selection of twelve assorted poets. Centre: Choosing the evening program. Right: Home theatre with the telephonoscope.
At home, walking, sightseeing, these fortunate hearers will experience the ineffable delight of reconciling hygiene with instruction; of nourishing their minds while exercising their muscles; for there will be pocket phono-operagraphs, for use during excursions among Alpine meadows or in the cañons of the Colorado.”
“At every open place in the city little buildings will be erected, with hearing tubes corresponding to certain works hung all around for the benefit of the studious passer-by. They will be easily worked by the mere pressure of a button. On the other side, a sort of automatic book-dealer, set in motion by a nickel in the slot, will for this trifling sum give the works of Dickens, Dumas père or Longfellow, on long rolls prepared for home consumption.”
Journalism and the daily paper will follow the same path, he predicts, when the “voices of the whole world will be gathered up in the celluloid rolls which the post will bring morning by morning to the subscribing hearers.” When pressed by Blackcross to explain how the world will make good the want of illustrations, Uzanne has a ready answer: “You perhaps forget the great discovery of To-morrow, that which is soon to amaze us all; I mean the Kinetograph of Thomas Edison, of which I was so happy as to see the first trial at Orange Park, New Jersey, during a recent visit to the great electrician.”
“The kinetograph will be the illustrator of daily life; not only shall we see it operating in its case, but by a system of lenses and reflectors all the figures in action which it will present in photochromo may be projected upon large white screens in our own homes. Scenes described in works of fiction and romances of adventure will be imitated by appropriately dressed figurants and immediately recorded.” He goes on to predict the rise of “aurists” as the focus shifts from eye to ear, just as oculists appeared with the printed word, since “no progress has ever been made without changing the place of some of our ills” and to conclude: “Be that as it may, I think that if books have a destiny, that destiny is on the eve of being accomplished; the printed book is about to disappear. After us, the last of books, gentlemen!”
Well, there you have it. One hundred and twenty years ago, Octave Uzanne predicted the audio book, home cinema, earphones and the walkman (the what? Oh, of course, I forgot, we saw the end of those a while ago). Happily he was wrong about printed books. I still have a few I am loath to consign to the scrapheap of history.
Cover of the August 1894 issue of Scribner’s Magazine. The periodical was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons between January 1887 and May 1939.
The full article “The End of Books” by Octave Uzanne
SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY
I’ve long collected imagery by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, all the time longing for a decent book of her work to be published. Recently, I stumbled upon what I am convinced is a self-portrait, in the guise of Botticelli no less; there is an intent and an intensity in the features that seems to point to a real model, rather than an idealised portrait. I’ll leave you to judge.
Botticelli’s Studio or The first visit of Simonetta presented by Giulio and Lorenzo de Medici, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, 1922
 Poètes de ruelles au XVIIe siècle, 4 volumes edited by Uzanne, printed by Damase Jouast: followed by Les Petits Conteurs du XVIIIe siècle’, 12 volumes edited by Uzanne, and Documents sur les Moeurs du XVIIIè siècle, 4 volumes edited by Uzanne, between 1875 and 1878.
 I had the immense pleasure of meeting K. W. Jeter in Leipzig, at a slightly obscure but nevertheless fascinating science fiction convention. Read his work. Posterity will pinpoint him as a pivotal figure in the evolution of science fiction.
 Mental note to self, look HIM up.
 He was outrageously wrong about women too, but he was hardly alone then – or now for that matter. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded seeing some of Robida’s more ambitious ideas come true. I really would like a flying skateboard.