The future of books: And now a brief word in behalf of apocalyptic despair.
I am reluctant to disagree with one of my personal heroes, but Jason Epstein’s piece in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books is far too optimistic. E-books and print-on-demand are not the next step in reading technology. They are instead waystations on the path to an illiterate future.
Regular visitors to this blog (should there be any) will notice that it’s been a long time since I’ve written about this topic. Early on I made many gloomy posts prophesying the end of books, literature and reading, but I, even I, tire of being right when no one’s paying attention.
Besides, I don’t want to be seen as a crank. Really, are there any more tiresome figures in history than Cassandra or Jeremiah? Yes, Troy fell to the Greeks and Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem and carried the stiff-necked Israelites into bondage, but can you imagine how much fun these two were at parties?
Still, I must respectfully part company with Jason Epstein, despite his almost ridiculous record of cultural achievement. He’s the publisher and writer who invented the trade paperback, edited such greats as Vladimir Nabokov, E.L. Doctorow and Philip Roth, co-founded The New York Review of Books (my all-time favorite magazine) and the Library of America.
What’s more, he’s been writing cogent analyses of the digital impact on books and publishing for longer than anyone I know. As he mentions (without undue pride, let me note) in the new essay, in the 1980s he suggested to colleagues at Random House the creation of a direct mail catalogue featuring the backlists of all publishers. For reasons that seemed sound at the time the idea was rejected — but this was, of course, the basic idea Amazon.com perfected in 1995.
Epstein’s new essay, rather hopefully titled “Onward to the Digital Revolution,” is actually a review of Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, by John B. Thompson. (Alas, without a subscription, you can only view the first few paragraphs online).
A distinguished British sociologist, Thompson has made a thorough study of the contemporary, much-distressed publishing industry. He concludes that while vast changes are in store for the way books are developed, marketed and distributed, the threat to traditional books and reading, libraries and independent bookstores is overstated.
“Whatever happens,” Thompson writes (as quoted by Epstein), “it seems to me likely that the book, both in its traditional printed form and in those electronic formats that turn out to be sufficiently attractive to readers…, will continue to play an important role…in our cultural and public life…. Books [are] a privileged form of communication, one in which the genius of the written word can be inscribed in an object that is at once a medium of expression, a means of communication and a work of art.”
Bravo! I could not have said it better. If only any of that mattered, in the long run.
Thompson’s book is no doubt a worthwhile study, and Epstein’s essay/book review is certainly an excellent insider’s survey of the changes in the publishing world over the past 40 years. But the cheering forecasts of these two imminent thinkers is, I tremble to say, simply wrong.
The problem with the way Epstein, Thompson and others analyze the digital revolution is one of perspective. They look at the ways technology is likely to affect books, but the real impact is in the way digital technology is going to alter people. I used to think I was so smart when I went around saying, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Then I found out that Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase about the time I started first grade.
But the principle stands, even if I’m not as smart as I thought I was. Yes, technology will radically alter production and distribution of books for the next, say, generation or two, with e-books and print-on-demand likely becoming ubiquitous. In the long run, though, digital technology will alter the way the human brain develops and works.
Attention spans will get shorter and shorter, until, as my friend Edmund Skellings, technology avatar and poet laureate of Florida, predicts, poetry will be the dominant literary form as people become unable to muster the focused concentration to read anything longer than a few verses or paragraphs.
Meanwhile, more and more intellectual functions will be off-shored to digital devices, like GPS and calculators. Miniaturization will advance to the point cellphones will be implanted in your head, rendering us all effectively telepathic. Computers, too, will migrate to the human body. We will become cyborgs, lacking the interest, capacity –and most important — need to read books.
And this is not going to happen in the far future, but within the lifetimes of the youngest among us. The technology for everything I’ve mentioned exists, or almost exists, already. We will not be quite human anymore. Thus saith the Lord.
Please, someone out there prove me wrong, please. In the meantime, however, the sun is shining on a partly overcast day here in Fort Lauderdale. There are books to read, deadlines to make, friends to call or email. It’s the end of the world as I know it, and I feel fine, if only because it’s not quite here. Yet.