At the End of the World, Everyone Wants to Write a Book
“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book; indeed the end of the world is approaching.”
–Allegedly an Assyrian inscription, 1500 BC.
I first encountered the above quote in the book Guerrilla Marketing for Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson et al. At first reading, this epigraph mesmerized me by its prophetic tone and the sense of déjà vu, as though the text is a long lost friend, familiar, and yet a mystery stretched over time. When I tried to verify the actual source of the quote, there is not enough evidence to confirm that such an inscription ever existed in ancient times. Variations of the inscription’s text appeared over the last century in various publications, but according to the Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, the earliest appearance in an English publication of a similar epigraph was in 1908. The authorship of these variant texts has been attributed to authors in ancient Egyptian, Babylonian as well as the above mentioned, anonymous Assyrian inscriber.
Whether or not such a text actually existed in ancient times no longer concerns me. The thing that intrigues me is whether or not a certain portion of the epigraph makes a true statement about the world we live in. My focus in this article is in the truncated paraphrase: “At the end of the world, every man wants to write a book.”
A more precise hypothesis might be something like: Is there an increased inclination of the literate population to write a book during an apparent decay of the world?
To this end, I find the American novelist Walker Percy helpful. In his view, the world is not necessarily the actual physical world, the planet earth or other such grand structure. What is of utmost importance is the world as the individual sees it. The planet could be perfectly intact, orbiting the sun, human society still alive and functioning at some level, yet a mad man might see his world melting away. Or just the opposite might be true. Our planet might be on the collision course of a gigantic asteroid. Or our civilization might be crumbling right before our eyes. Yet a sane man in these circumstances might be considered mad by his peers, because they do not see what he sees. The subtitle of Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins even suggests as much: “The adventures of a bad Catholic at a time near the end of the world.” In this novel, society is breaking down, and the deeply flawed hero Dr. Thomas More invents a device called the Ontological Lapsometer which he intends to use to heal the psyche of human kind. In the wrong hands it causes more evil than good. Ironically Dr. More is a psychiatrist who himself has problems with his own psyche, and at the same time, he sees the decay of the world around him.
To use more prosaic language than poetic, we might substitute the phrase “at the decay of society” or “at the collapse of civilization” in place of “at the end of the world.” If we use the word “world” to mean the society or civilization we live in or know, whether it be locally or globally, then we can ask the question, are people really more inclined to want to write a book during the collapse of their civilization?
I have come to believe that more people do want to write a book when their civilization is in decline than when it is not. I am not aware of any quantitative study, but I believe there is anecdotal evidence (or signs) that when an empire or great civilization decays then there is an increased desire among its people to write a book. I’m not sure if there is cause and effect here, but for me, there appears to be a correlation between the end times and the desire to write a book.
An example of a society in decline while attended by an increase in the desire for authorship was when the printing press came to Europe. When typography dislodged the Catholic Church from its monopoly of the published, written word, more people then could become authors writing about topics that the Church might be found lacking. Subjects like medicine, mathematics and astronomy, as well as novels eventually found a demanding audience. The economics of the printing press made it favorable to write on topics the Church may not have been interested in, and also made anti-Church pamphlets and treaties more accessible to the general population. The promulgation of anti-cleric literature certainly hastened the decline of the Church’s influence on the people of Europe.
Protestantism that supplanted Catholicism in England and Northern Europe seems to flourish with the invention of the printing press. That branch of English Protestantism, the Non-conformists, especially the Puritans, saw a flourishing of book publication. The publication of spiritual memoirs like John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress might have set a mould for the English novel form. At first glance, England does not appear to be in decline with this new found love of writing and reading of printed books. On the contrary, it remained a world power until after World War II. Still, I believe, the writing was on the wall, when a major piece of the British Empire was lost to the Americans. The irony was that the founders of the new republic were English Protestants of the Non-conformist ilk, very learned men who loved to write and read thick books. The world that was collapsed was Catholic England, and the new world was Protestant England. America became the great religious experiment of the Dissenters from Protestant England.
Another example may be seen in the corruption and decline of the Chinese civilization under the Qing Dynasty. Much has been written about the reasons for the collapse of Chinese civilization in this period (1644-1911), but mostly in social, economic or political terms. One of the prescient characteristics found in the collapsing Qing Empire, as I see it though, was that the Qing bureaucracy consisted of candidates who had passed exams in classical literature, including books of poems. Their civil service examination system focused on the literary and historical. Topics such as modern science were virtually non-existent in these civil service exams. You might say that Qing bureaucrats were a bunch of poets running the country. Although this does not prove outright that there was an increase in the writing and publishing of books during the Qing Dynasty, there was cultivated an increased impulse to write among a bloated public service. One of the ideals of the Chinese civil service examination system was that it was based on merit; so that the lower class had a chance to move up in society. A trickle-down effect, I suspect, would encourage people in the lower rungs of society to aspire, to prepare, and to compete for a cherished position in the government bureaucracy.
It is also significant that shortly before extensive contact with foreign trade, one of China’s greatest, pre-modern novel The Dream of the Read Chamber was written in this period, first published in manuscript form and then in print. The novel is about the decay of a prominent family which perhaps mirrors the decline of Qing Dynastic China itself. It became the model for modern romance novels and family sagas in China. Another influential, modern novelist, Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), began writing her novels during the decay of Republican China in the twentieth century. Anecdotally it appears there might have been an uptick in a desire to write poems and novels during the decline of, respectively, Qing Dynastic and Republican China.
In our own time, and Marshall McLuhan is prescient on this, the inventions of the computer and electric networks (the Internet) enable the rise of companies like Amazon that offer the chance for every literate person to publish their own books. There is no financial barrier to entry. Authors can choose to publish their book in an electronic format (ebook) or a traditional print format. The latter format may be traditional, but it is the new technology of digital printing that does not require a writer-publisher to hold a costly inventory of books for sale, but rather a single book can be printed on demand within a reasonable cost.
At the same time, corruption and ruin in the financial world as well as in the political sphere–the collapse of Lehman Brothers, GM bailouts, wars in far-off lands, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the Senate scandal in Canada, need I say more–are signs that something is not right.
So, at a time when everyone thinks he has a book in him, when everyone encourages everyone else that he can be an author, are we in the twenty-first century then also at the end of the world?