Harold Augenbraum on the Future of Literary Culture

Harold Augenbraum—Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, whose blog Reading Ahead is one of the most thoughtful, intelligent literary blogs out there—recently gave a very interesting speech at Concordia College about The Future of Literary Culture.

Basically, Augenbraum is of the “digital books are inevitable” camp and throughout his speech teases out various ways this inevitable future will impact book culture.

He starts by addressing the recent studies about the decline in reading, referencing the fact that similar sentiments have been repeated over and again for the last 30+ years:

Pessimism, like guilt, can serve a positive purpose, and the publishing industry has it in spades, from the writers to editors to publishers to the booksellers to the readers. It keeps those in the business forging ahead, with an attitude of righteousness, and as long as hangdogs don’t turn into depressives, they’ll continue to print and market good and bad books and continue to try to convince kids and adults that the literary arts provide an extraordinary personal experience. And don’t tell me that kids and teenagers are not interested in reading. The increase in teen book sales is the highest in the business.

My personal take on the “decline in reading” is that there are multiple readerships to discuss, each with different goals, motivations, and trends. To keep it simple, it seems to me that there are at least two major groups that overlap but have some discernable difference—entertainment readers and literary readers. The former read for fun, treating reading as an activity on par with watching TV or using the internet. Fiction—which was what the NEA was really looking at in their study—doesn’t fare well with these readers who much prefer memoirs, nonfiction, etc. To a lot of people, fiction just isn’t as entertaining as CSI, or whatever. Literary readers are those who treat reading as an activity that’s pleasurable but separate from other forms of entertainment. They read for different reasons and enjoy literary texts for something other than the visceral enjoyment of the plot. Hopefully this second group is relatively stable is size over time . . .

The question of readership is key to any discussion of the digital future of book culture, since a shift away printed books (and our current distribution and sales system) will have a radical impact on the way in which we find out about and access particular titles. Browsing is one very obvious way in which we find out about new books—but how to browse in the future?

So what happens to bookstore browsing? The next generation browses on social networks such as Facebook, while dedicated book sites such as Shelfari vie for the social book network eye. Will they satisfy the traditional definition of browsing: 1) shifting one’s body and eyes along a myriad of selections, 2) choosing an individual item based on a variety of criteria, including graphics and words, 3) examining the item, based somewhat on the criteria of attraction, and 4) replacing the item in its place or purchasing it. This is, indeed, an active, physical approach, as Camille Paglia suggested about the more focused concept of humanistic inquiry. Will social networks re-create the input of such an active approach? And does that matter to the selection and enjoyment of reading that leads to intellectual stimulation? What will constitute the new browsing leading to its new place in the literary culture?

Speculating about the future of book culture is fascinating to me, especially in terms of how technology will change the way we develop audiences. There’s no self-evident right answer to what will or won’t work; if the digital future will help “mid-list” authors find a larger audience, or be completely shut out of the Espresso Book Machine market. (I can’t recommend watching that movie enough. Here I thought the future of reading would be slick and flashy . . . Not so, according to the EBM supporters. The future is like Frankenstein’s monster!)

The last part of Augenbraum’s essay about the future of the page, so to speak, is also very interesting, if for no other reason than to point out how hopelessly outdated the OpenLibrary.org site seems, with it’s flipping pages and book-on-screen setup.

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