So I’ll push back a bit. Greenblatt in The Swerve talks about this quite a bit, the way books profoundly changed the way we thought. Part of that, according to Greenblatt, is the way books can transcend context. But a big part to was the intimate solitude of the book. The ancient world had a deep suspicion of reading — anti-social, it allowed people to develop ideas outside a social framework.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I look at why wikis have not had the impact in education that they might. And I think to some extent the closest thing we have to the ancient world is Wikipedia. And if you’ve been in Wikipedia, you realize how much communal ownership of ideas sucks. I wrote about this a bit today:

Wikis tend to supress dissent, sure, but they also force dissent into factionalism. It’s probably no coincidence that in the ancient world you had to pick a school of philosophy and adhere to it religiously or break off into your own heretical faction. There really was no middle ground. There still isn’t in Wikipedia, which is why people (and especially the less privileged) flee from its gang violence in droves. If you want a culture that preserves a status quo hierachy, pick an oral culture. Your dissidents won’t stand a chance.

Thinking about about writing broadly, it’s worth going back to some of the earliest uses of it, in accounting and lawmaking. In both cases the record of what a debt was or what the law was protected the weak. I think books also protect weak ideas, allowing them to grow without being smothered. I think oral/web culture tends to make ideas better, but it needs the countervailing force of personal tracts and spaces, or it just becomes a mob. I know you’re just being provocative with the anti-books idea, but far from reinforcing the power structure, it was the book which allowed us continually critique and dismantle it.