Stamping Out More than Just Pages since the 15th Century
The chapter "This Will Kill That" (Book V.II) is devoted to sticking it to the printing press for utterly ruining the glorious art of architecture. How did it do that? By giving people a more permanent way of communicating through writing, at least according to Victor Hugo's narrator. At times, it seems like the narrator talks about the advent of printing like it's a bad thing. But what is the problem with this argument?
It's written in a novel.
The novel as an art form owes its existence to the invention of the printing press. Before that, it was a lot more painstaking, labor-intensive, and expensive to create multiple copies of huge tomes of prose. This irony is not lost on Hugo. He wants you to realize that, in an age where the idea of the "permanent" building was rapidly disappearing, there needed to be something else that allowed history and art to survive from age to age.
Remember, this is a novel about, among other things, permanence and impermanence (as we discuss about in the "Cathedral" section in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory"). It might be weird to think of books as something more durable than buildings, but the logic is that when you only have a few copies of a manuscript, it just takes a few fires and some spilled goblets to lose those works forever. With printing, however, it's okay if you spill coffee all over your copy of The Hunchback,because you can just go out and buy another for the price of lunch.
So, how are we supposed to think about printed books in light of the fact that we're reading a novel about a cathedral? At the end of the chapter "This Will Kill That," the narrator wants us to think about the collective written work of humankind as its own kind of cathedral, in the same way that the cathedrals of the Middle Ages were collectively-made "social works" (III.I.20).
But this cathedral—this cathedral of written work—is "colossal," with "a thousand floors." It remains "always unfinished" (V.II.41). It's the cathedral of the new age.