The Future of Books

6 Jun ’06

With regularity now, the NYT is running extensive pieces on the Web’s transformation of traditional media, particularly books. Recently, it was Kevin Kelly’s piece on book publishing attracting attention; more recently, Motoko Rich writes on the impact the Web is having on book distribution and marketing. One theme of the piece is the reluctance some writers have to their works being released for consumption on the Web:

Liberating books from their physical contexts could make it easier for them to blend into one another, a concept heralded by Kevin Kelly in an article in The New York Times Magazine last month. “Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together,” wrote Mr. Kelly in an article that was derided by Mr. Updike in his BookExpo polemic. “The collective intelligence of a library allows us to see things we can’t see in a single, isolated book.”

“Does that mean ‘Anna Karenina’ goes hand in hand with my niece’s blog of her trip to Las Vegas?” asked Jane Hamilton, author of “The Book of Ruth” and a forthcoming novel, “When Madeline Was Young.” “It sounds absolutely deadly.” Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. “When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I’m in the presence of the divine,” Ms. Hamilton said. “I don’t want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don’t want to go to her Web site.”

I don’t really know what “goes hand in hand” means for Hamilton, but in any event the anxiety is evident. These anxieties received a sound thrashing recently on Jeff Jarvis’ site, in a series of posts and discussions about the future of books – a series that he summarized recently in a column for the Media Guardian:

We need to kill the book to save books. Now relax. I’m not suggesting burning books, nor replacing them with electronic gizmos in some paperless future of fable and fantasy. Instead, I’m merely arguing that the book is an outdated means of communicating information. And thanks to the searchable, connected internet, books could be so much more.

Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word.

When I wrote this on my blog, defenders of the printed faith came after me with pitchforks and cries of, “Philistine!” After journalist Kevin Kelly extolled the digital future of books in a recent edition of New York Times Magazine, John Updike took to the stage at the BookExpo conference to rant and rail against him. “Pretty grizzly stuff,” Updike growled, “throwing us back to the level of pre-literate societies.” Or holding us back in a pre-digital society.

To be fair, Jarvis himself has noted that these speculations about the future of books likely do not apply to fiction:

Purcell and one of his commenters also quite rightly challenge me on whether my own speculation about books applies to fiction. I think much of it doesn’t. I was never one of those who believed that technology would allow us to create our own endings to movies or books. Stories are the creation of an author; they do have their own beginnings and ends.

and that feels right to me. But of course, it’s probably unfair to credit only the fiction writer with a mission of casting that spell over the reader – as a non-fiction fan I often find myself equally immersed in well-written history and so on. And so when I first read that comment my thought was “why stop there”? Much of non-fiction is “stories” – one author’s interpretation of history, for example. I think there’s much more to the notion that any author might want to bring the reader in and keep the reader involved in the writing, rather than releasing them into a network of hyperlinks and multimedia and discussion. Isn’t this the author’s decision – just one of the creative decisions the author makes? No doubt many – particularly out of the world of fiction – will share Jeff’s vision, but it seems clear to me that many won’t.

In some respects, the idea of books being replaced by interactive media products, rich with other media, hyperlinks, reader comments and the like, makes me shudder with the thought of the world’s books becoming bad powerpoint presentations. Ultimately, I do think there’s something to the role that immersive experience plays in our ability to explore and use media effectively, and I think that Jeff’s vision gives too little credit to that role. Ever had the experience of following hyperlinks and forgetting where it was you started, and why? Or of being interrupted at work by the phone, perhaps a celphone, email messages, and perhaps even IM, and needing to spend an extra 15 minutes to find your way back into the state of mind you had before the interruptions? Jeff frequently makes the point that content doesn’t exist without context, and that content is part of a larger conversation – for example, the conversations that readers engage in about the books they’ve read. Fine – but I generally wouldn’t want someone talking at me while I’m immersed in reading – they may be related experiences, but often they need to be kept distinct, each potentially detracting from the other, the boundaries being important to ensure that each is an enriching experience. What this means is that the media itself determines the right degree, I suppose. And of course there is the author’s vision of how the work will be consumed, and the reader’s preferences as well.

For those of us who spend a lot of time on the Web Jeff’s vision of the book’s future will seem an almost natural evolution. And that’s fine. But I’m willing to wager that many who spend a lot of time on the Web have already largely left the world of books behind them – and perhaps also even essay-oriented magazines – challenged by the pressures of time and the promise of the Web’s easier diversions to find the time to focus to the extent required to truly enjoy a good book or the latest New Yorker. I suspect that this raises one of the harder questions raised by Jeff’s vision: will books continue to be a place where immersive thought and extended time are required, or are they morphing into another channel in the always-on, million-channel universe, full of clicks and links and chats and tunes and videos; full of flashing lights and tinkling bells, an easy rest-stop for those who prefer to skim lightly over the surface of the world’s ideas? And of course, who decides?

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