More about the End of Book Culture as We Know It

I realize this is an old article (I think I’ll be catching up for days . . .), but this piece in the Independent is strange, conventional, and interesting all at once.

Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age? starts with the question of how the internet age is changing the way we read, with Nicholas Carr’s recent article from the Atlantic Monthly (entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) providing a great summary of these changes:

“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s,” writes Carr, “media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr quotes a research programme that monitored the behaviour of researchers visiting information sources. Most of the researchers, it found, hopped incontinently from site to site, never staying longer than a few paragraphs, apparently unable to sustain interest in one text. The report’s authors coined a splendid phrase: “…there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging, as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

John Walsh is (somewhat rightfully) appalled by this state of things, and goes into a series of laments for the “literary” novel, claiming that back in the heyday of Amis, Rushdie, Barnes, readers were willing to give “experimental, inward-looking, linguistically challenging fiction” a try. But today? Adam Mars-Jones Pilcrow “sold only a few hundred copies.” (That might have to do with the book/author . . . Not saying, just saying.)

Then, as predicable as the sun, he turns from reader’s attention problems, to their fear of challenging books, to his hatred of the e-book. (This is the point where we enter Andy Rooney territory.):

It seems oddly coincidental that the e-book is coming into our reading lives around now. With its hand-tooled leather binding, its don’t-be-scared page dimensions (two-thirds the size of a standard paperback), its flexible typeface and typesize formats, and the astounding capacity of its memory (it can store up to 160 standard-size titles), it is user-friendly, glossy, rather pretty in its ingénue novelty. But its callowness makes you weep.

The instructions tell you, “One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that’s enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)” Yeah, right. But it’s not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It’s an electronic simulation of a page, but it’ll never convince you it’s a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn’t have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You’ll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won’t have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.

And you can’t turn the pages.

I’m not entirely sure all three of this main objections are causally related in the way he implies, nor do I think Charles Dickens is necessarily incompatible with the digital age.

But anyway, it’s clear that this guy hates the future. And the present. And, at least on some level, feels like book culture is being sullied by things like this blog. (I assume, I assume. Although maybe he’d appreciate the lengthiness of all my posts . . . Take that ADD readers!) So, of course, right under his article are a series of comments from various professionals . . . several of whom aren’t nearly as reactionary. Here are a few highlights:

The agent : Clare Alexander: “I’m spending much more time talking to publishers about legal issues and far less time on creativity. There’s also the other side of the digital revolution – that original ideas filter through to print from the internet. Yes, occasionally a blog becomes a book – about sex, usually – and the really original ideas percolate through, but most stuff online is crap!” (_Ed. Note: As are 85%+ of all books that are published, so I think that’s a moot point._)

The new-media lecturer: Sue Thomas: “Will books exist in 50 years? Definitely, but they will also be just one of the many ways we experience art. I feel quite cynical about the cloak of preciousness that’s been woven around the novel: it’s such a recent medium – we’ve only had it a few hundred years and yet you often hear people say, ‘We’ve always had novels.’ No we have not!”

The author: Tracy Chevalier: “Younger people are more adventurous in the way they take in information and not so emotionally wedded to the book as older people. The music industry has paved the way in terms of expectations of how we receive information and it’s natural that our industry will have its iPod moment.”

The Google guy: Santiago de la Mora: “Does Google Book Search symbolise the death of the [printed] book? On the contrary, it gives books more visibility and makes it easier for people to buy them, or to know they exist in libraries. Now they can be read by anyone, anywhere. I’m originally from Columbia: I know what I grew up with and that the biggest barrier in life is no access to information. So from a personal viewpoint, it’s a beautiful project.” (_Ed. Note: Absolutely. This is similar to what I saw going on in Argentina._)

The librarian: Richard Ovenden: “Our reading rooms are still as busy as ever: the most high-quality digitisation does not replace the power of seeing the original artefact. However, people are now more aware of what we’ve got: a recent report identified a generation that felt that if something wasn’t online it didn’t exist. So if you digitise things, it does exist to that generation.”

The publisher: Jeremy Ettinghausen: “Penguin is the publisher that invented the paperback: innovation is in our DNA. We were early bloggers, the first publisher with a podcast; our Blog a Penguin Classic project won us an award. We have 5,000 friends on Facebook, we’re on Twitter, and were the first to go into Second Life, where we took William Gibson, the writer who invented the word ‘cyberspace’. We don’t believe books will disappear – 99 per cent of our revenue still comes from ink on paper – but the way people read will change.”

The digital convert: Chris Meade: “Could you compare a blog or a story told via Twitter to Dickens? Well, Dickens wrote in soap opera-like episodes. It’s always easier to decide where the cultural action has been, but hard to spot it at the time. These things are happening and we need to adjust.”

And then, the most bizarre:

The teacher: Andrew Cowan: “Ahead of this interview, I talked to [my students] about digitisation and not one of them had heard of Twitter, and they were all hostile to the idea of e-books. They’re not immersed in digital fiction, either – some have been published online, but feel it’s second-best; they’re concerned about the lack of editorial control on the Net and only pursue it because there is a dearth of [print] outlets for short stories. None of them keeps a blog, though one admitted sheepishly that she’d started one, and the others were all smirking about it. This is the new generation of writers.”

Probably not the “new generation,” but whatever.

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