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The future of books: And now a brief word in behalf of apocalyptic despair.

February 3, 2011

Can't you shut up, Cassandra?1?: The Greeks finally got tired of her being right all the time

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 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.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Woolard permalink
    February 3, 2011 1:00 pm

    They look at the ways technology is likely to effect books…

    I think you meant to say affect books or did you mean bring books into existence?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2011 4:57 pm

      Thank for that correction. I rue the extinction of copy editors every day I write this blog.

  2. Matt permalink
    February 3, 2011 1:02 pm

    You may be right, but I’ll offer an alternative argument: I never thought I’d be comfortable with the transition from books (as physical objects) to books (as a platform-superseding media concept), but I have been surprised to find numerous advantages to reading on my iPad. From the absurd (I always have it with me, and find myself snatching minutes to read that might otherwise have been spending farting around on my phone) to the sublime (it’s surprising how many words have slightly different meanings from what I thought… I never would have bothered to consult a dictionary, but being able to instantly pull up a definition is nice… and that feature will only improve as the e-book “dictionaries” expand to be more like encyclopedias… imagine being able to understand some of those more obscure references, or instantly access translations of slang from other countries). In fact, to take that argument to its extreme, one of the warnings I’ve often heard against reading Infinite Jest is the physical frustration involved with jumping up and back between narrative and the footnotes – but on the iPad, it’s instant. (That’s hardly the only admonition on Messr. Wallace’s opus, all of which I’m ignoring right now as I give it a shot.)

    This is all a long way of saying: if the process of reading becomes both more convenient and more satisfying, might that be a counter-force to the technology-induced destruction of the next generation’s attention span?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2011 5:01 pm

      Might be, I certainly hope so. I’ve always achieved all the advantages you mention with dictionaries and regular books — and the indispensable Roget’s — but I see the value of what you describe. In truth, I hold out hope some middle path may be found, I just think it’s pretty unlikely, given humann nature.

  3. February 3, 2011 1:05 pm

    Say it ain’t so. I wish you are wrong. I do not think you are. Imagine how it may affect writers. Math will be done by machines. No need to learn it. Grammar done by machine. I never thought I would say this, but thank goodness I will not be around in 50 years. I never thought I would say it but it looks like we are headed in the wrong direction. Well I have to go.
    The chip they inserted in me when I was born is beeping. I have to have it checked and charged.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2011 5:02 pm

      Hey, Mike, check the oil while you’re at it.

  4. February 3, 2011 1:48 pm

    Really, Mr. Crankypants! I don’t think it’s quite that bad yet. Then again, call me Patesaurus (even though I like my nook).
    Apple’s latest decision to reject Nook, Kindle, Sony e-reader apps for iPad and iPhone, restricting content to that bought thru Apple store, is why, if I ever get a smart phone, it’ll probably be Droid. The fact that Amazon’s Kindle is so damn proprietary sent me to Nook, and now I can check digital books out of the library for free.
    Meanwhile, my stacks of books in DTF, dead tree format, continue to grow. I have the reading addiction gene and proud of it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2011 5:10 pm

      Mr. Crankypants! I like it, I like it! No it’s not that bad yet, but it will be or my name’s not Mr. Crankypants (love it, thanks!). I have a smart phone, but like me it’s not THAT smart and I use it only for voice, text, time and the very occasional web search. I can’t imagine reading anything longer than a few hundred words on its teensy screan. But then I can’t imagine reading on any screen, anywhere. Write on a screen, yes. Read in a screen? Gag.

      As Mitch Kaplan said the first time I wrote about digital books, back in the Dark Age of 2001: “There are two things about books. First, the format is technologically perfect. You can’t improve on it. It needs no batteries, works in a power shortage. Drop it and it doesn’t break. It’s very transportable. It’s infinitely adaptable. All you need to know to use it is how to read.

      “Second, it’s a beautiful object surrounded by a cultural mystique. It’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s ingrained in the culture, unlike vinyl records which were current for only a short time before being replaced by CDs. It’s going to be hard to find a better format than the book.”

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 3, 2011 3:36 pm

    Give me the Dead Tree version of War and Peace. Give me my landline phone which he big enough for me to cradle against my shoulder and ear. Or give me death.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2011 5:11 pm

      Why choose? You get to have all three! Sooner or later….

  6. Alan Troop permalink
    February 3, 2011 9:23 pm

    If you really want to get depressed check out the Daily, the new enewspaper for IPad. It makes USA today look content heavy.

  7. February 3, 2011 10:19 pm

    I think I’m going to be sick. Cyborgs indeed. So many already are, which is one reason I want to quit teaching. Over twenty years of this and I can see the arc unfolding in my students ability to concentrate, lack thereof. They (generally) don’t read, don’t even buy the textbooks if I don’t insist, don’t take notes, don’t want to know any literature, just want a passing grade. I’ve never flunked so many as I flunked last semester. What’s happening? Why don’t they care like they used to? The Golden Age is gone. It will never come back. Geez, I just made myself melancholy. Where’s the vodka?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 4, 2011 1:34 am

      You’ll have to ask Chelsea about that. Not to bum you out, but I fear the Bronze Age is gone, too.

  8. PJ Parrish permalink
    February 4, 2011 12:21 pm

    I tend to come at this issue from a different side, as a writer who is interested in getting my stories into as many hands as possible. So I tend to look at the eBook as an opportunity, just another FORMAT of delivery. (as an audiobook, large-print book, or paperback are all progeny of the hardcover). What really interests me is how eBooks will fundementally change the business model and archaic DISTRIBUTION system that has served the publishing industry all these years. Books are one of the few products sold totally on commission. Bookstores, once they “buy” books, have the right to return 100 percent of them if they don’t sell. In this insane system, authors earn a royalty when a bookstore orders her book, not when the book is actually sold to a customer. But that royalty is forfeited when the book gets returned. So published have this insidious contract clause called “reserve against returns” wherein they can hold back some of your royalties in anticipation of copies being returned. Problem is, these clauses are intentionally vague and open-ended.

    Now here’s the catch: with eBooks, there is no physical product taking up valuable real estate in the bookstore or airport. But get this: Publishers are inserting return clauses in eBook contracts! THERE IS NOTHING TO RETURN!

    The publishing model is broken. Has been for a long long time. If eBooks help pry publishers out of their cocoons of nostalgia and force them to create 21st century business models, I am all for their success.

    ‘ payments (royalties) are held in hostage via an insidious contract clause called “reserves against returns.” Meaning, the publisher sets aside a percentage of

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 5, 2011 11:55 am

      Publishers are evil, and have been at least since Bertelesman took over the world, and I gainsay nothing in your remarks. From my point of view, to quote McLuhan, the medium is the message, and the content of an e-book is in the long run of almost negligible importance by comparison to the delivery system, which is the tool that will rewire our brains and eventually help make us all functionally illiterate. Or our grandchildren, anyhow. But that’s my obsession. Meanwhile, authors deserve a better shake from publishers. Publishers need to stop giving the big bestsellers so much money, too. For more on this problem, see the Jason Epstein article referenced in my original post above.

  9. PJ Parrish permalink
    February 4, 2011 12:23 pm

    Sorry for the junk at the end of the last post. I got a Trojan virus alert as I was posting and panicked! Probably some publisher somewhere trying to get back at me.

  10. PJ Parrish permalink
    February 4, 2011 12:41 pm


    By the way, the New York Times is going to start running an eBook bestseller list Feb. 13.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 5, 2011 11:55 am

      Yeah, I saw that. A natural development.

  11. February 4, 2011 2:12 pm

    This is the Chauncey I fondly remember, the proud Luddite who longs for the feel of the page and the musty smell of the must-read. But I wonder if people had similar arguments when literature leapt from stone to clay to scrolls to codices? Was the medium important, or was it the words and the ideas behind them?

    I agree that technology is making people flightier, less patient, more distractible. But that’s all technology, not the ebooks. If people were no longer reading long-form texts, would Nook, Kindle etal be selling as well? I doubt it.

    If you can read an involved novel or nonfiction book, and carry dozens of them on vacation in a space smaller than a laptop, isn’t that a net (no pun intended) improvement?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 5, 2011 12:00 pm

      In the short run, maybe, but eventually the new technology will remold the human brain to make us functionally illiterate. And we won’t miss it, either, just like we didn’t miss hand-copied books when the printing press came along. But whatever gains the new technology will deliver, enormous loss will come, too. It always does. You will notice, if you read my entire blog entry, that it’s not a discussion of e-books alone, but of digital technology in general. Really, our future belongs not with Capt. Picard and the humanist utopia of the Enterprise, but in the Borg Cube, as part of a cyborg collective. The rise of digital technology is not revolution, it’s evolution. You guys can go on ahead and become one with the machines. I’ll stay here. I like being human.


  1. Why books are dying (and it’s not just the Kindle) « Major Karnage

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