Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Future of the Book

It has become fashionable lately to openly question the viability of printed and bound books in the years to come and take subtle jabs at their obsolescence. It went from last fall, when a pre-Christmas MSM fascination with the Kindle predicted an all out Hiroshima for the book industry (Almost a year later, it fails to crack 2% of the reading market), to the Globe lamenting yesterday on the front page about U of T looking to close the Literature Studies department founded by Northrop Frye. Also sighted today: an article in Cabinet magazine wondering how, with Google digitizing books at the speed of a swinging pendulum per two pages, anyone could even still take the notion of a reference library seriously. While the technological advancements are no doubt impressive, what amazes me is people's dramatic dismissiveness of "the old way" as soon as some unproven, unused, and usually, impractical revamp on reading is created.

The argument goes like this. People have no attention spans anymore. How do you expect people who follow 160 character tweets and laugh at 2 and a half minute youtube videos to sit down and read...cue disgusted voice...a book. How can Howard's End or Rememberance of Things Past compete with 24 or Modern Warfare? The book was already dying, and our bad taste and low attention span has killed it, so the dwindling demographic who still insist on reading these archaic 35,000 word tracts (*yawn. You lost me at 160 characters) might as well do it on the cool gadgets the rest of us normal folk are glaring at and tapping ferociously on 24-7.

Not really. Why don't you stop talking about flavours of the month and ask people who actually read books? It's not all they do. They can appreciate other mediums too. Take the show Entourage. It's fast and furious, totally current, and relies on vulgarity and one liners to keep you entertained. But it works because there is story. There is plot. There is good dialogue. There is character development. This is what book readers crave and what they don't get out of a lot of popular culture. How many tweets or youtube videos do you actually remember? How interesting do they sound when you describe them? The most popular shows, CSI and 24, consist of watching the same man do the same thing getting to say all the cool lines and beat all the bad guys in every episode. This will bore the crap out of any book reader.

As will, for the most part, staring at a screen, whether it's the latest Hollywood sardine-crammed with clich├ęs whose story you're calling 15 minutes ahead of time (Think Coach Carter ), or blowing the crap out of a bombed out city centre on xbox, or watching David Caruso rip those shades off to deliver yet another sanctimonious one liner. Mass culture, while entertaining, is often devoid of content or substance, and the only way to defeat it is to 1)make good stuff or 2) find classic stuff. And classic stories are often books. Many of the best movies of the past 30 years are based on books. It's a way to get that great story to a greater number of people.

Before a child can read, he or she loves stimulation. Lullabies, peek-a-boo, jolly jumpers and lord knows, TV, everyone's favourite and much-needed babysitter. It doesn't matter what's on, the combination of bright colours and soothing sounds is too much for the infant mind to resist and they are in a trance. The dream-like trance of a good story in a book, one where the author is so masterful that you are immersed in a world that is entirely external to you and you don't think about where you are in the present, is a logical evolution and extension of this inherent desire we have to want to be entertained. Alas, over the past thirty years the collectively diminished attention span, whether it was all or in part due to technology, has led to the infantilization of culture.

But alongside the crap on TV and in theatres, and the antics of Sacha Baron Cohen and Steve-O, literature is not sinking. Literature is soaring. How can the decade that produced Rowling, Brown, Gilbert, Martel, Meyer and Kinsella, capable and gifted writers all, be the same one in which we announce literature's death knell? People are still reading at a voracious pace. What they are reading all has one thing in common - it's a matter of books, on pages, with no pictures, that you have to pay money to get, or be put on the waiting list at your library to rent.

Now that we've established that people are reading, let's take a look at how they're reading these works. Certainly less and less on the antiquated, outdated pages of printed book. No, thanks to Google soon we'll all be diving into that first chapter of Jane Eyre like we never have before: hunched over internet explorer at our desks. Or kicking back with the laptop on the couch on Saturday afternoon to fall asleep a couple hours into The Fountainhead with that hot lithium ion battery breeze blowing pleasantly on your groin area. I've already read The Trial twice, but I don't think I'll have ever truly experienced the pained and stifling aesthetic of its genius until I've squinted at one paragraph of it at a time on a sideways-turned smartphone at the window seat of a bus on a rainy day.

That's what these technology- perpetual erection havers don't get. Reading books takes time. Newspapers, maps, and bank accounts have adapted flawlessly and seamlessly to technology for the better - because they all take relatively little time to consult. A book takes longer, and needs nothing but your time - no upgrades, no repairs, no breakdowns (if it's good enough, you'll keep reading even as it falls apart in your hands) and no maintenance. Cheap, efficient, classy and beautiful to look at. Improves with age, and lasts decades.

If papyrus scrolls lasted in the libraries of Alexandria for thousands of years, how long do you think Google's data banks will last? The physical plastic, silicon, fibre optics and concrete may kick around for awhile but what good is the stuff without humans humming around the premises operating it?

Paper is eminently more practical, and the written word is the most effective way to convey interesting stories or thorough research. And book readers are happy to be sticks in the mud to the analysts, boardrooms and technophiles who have their fingers crossed for the demise of their preferred medium and a world where everyone has A.D.H.D.

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