Steve Wasserman on the Fate of Books After the Age of Print
Posted on Mar 5, 2010
But even a cursory look at the history of reading reveals that people have been reading in precisely this way for a very long time. Darnton cites one William Drake, “a voracious reader and bit player in the conflicts that convulsed England from 1640-1660. Drake understood reading as digestion, a process of extracting the essence from books and of incorporating them into himself. He favored bite-sized bits of text, which could be useful in their application to everyday life. Reading, he felt, should be aimed at helping a man get ahead in the world and its most helpful chunks came in the form of proverbs, fables, and even the mottoes written into emblem books” and carefully copied into the commonplace journals Drake so scrupulously kept. He was not alone. “Early modern Englishmen seem clearly to have read in the same way—segmentally, by concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book, rather than sequentially, as readers did a century later, when the rise of the novel encouraged the habit of perusing books from cover to cover.” “Segmental reading,” concludes Darnton, “compelled its practitioners to read actively, to exercise critical judgment, and to impose their own patter on their reading matter.”
Our ancestors, as historians of reading have noted, lived in different mental worlds and so too must they have read differently. We know, as Darnton has written, that “reading itself has changed over time. It was often done aloud and in groups, or in secret and with an intensity hard to imagine today.” It was one thing to unfurl a scroll, it was quite another to leaf through a codex. “Texts shape readers’ responses. Typography as well as style and syntax determine the ways in which texts convey meaning. The history of reading is arguably as complex as the history of thinking.” Or, to put it another way, just as different languages offer entirely different ways of understanding the world, so too must different ways of reading suggest different ways of apprehending the world. Reading is, writes Darnton, a mystery: “How do readers make sense of the signs on the printed page? What are the social effects of that experience? And how has it varied?” And how will the arrival and ubiquitous spread—indeed the likely coming hegemony of the World Wide Web—affect and shape the very ecology of communications and our habits of attention and comprehension? Does the ethos of acceleration prized by the Internet diminish our capacity for deliberation and enfeeble our capacity for genuine reflection? Does the daily avalanche of information banish the space needed for actual wisdom? “Change is good” is the mantra heard everywhere. Perhaps that is so, but arguably only up to a point.
Although the printed book continues to dominate the marketplace, it no longer holds pride of place as the only possible kind of book. Today, if Bill Gates were to offer up a new visionary work, he might well first post his prognostications as an e-book. Few readers would consider his sentences any less worthy or his ideas somehow less serious by having been conveyed through a technology invented the day before yesterday. Not very long ago it was thought no one would read a book on a computer screen. That now is demonstrably wrong.
The fear that literature itself is under siege may also be misplaced. Perhaps new forms of literary accomplishment will emerge, every bit as rigorous and as pleasurable and as enduring as the vaunted forms of yesteryear. After all, does anyone hold the haiku in contempt? Perhaps the discipline of tapping 140 characters on Twitter will one day give birth to a form as admirable and as elegant as haiku was at its height. Perhaps the interactive features of graphic display and video interpolation, hyperlinks and the simultaneous display of multiple panels made possible by the World Wide Web will prompt new and compelling ways of telling each other the stories our species seems biologically programmed to tell. And perhaps all this will add to the rich storehouse of an evolving literature whose contours we have only just begun to glimpse, much less to imagine.
We’re not yet there, of course. The predicted paperless world has yet to materialize. By one measure, the old world of book publishing is robust: According to Bowker’s Global Books in Print, 700,000 new titles appeared worldwide in 1998, 859,000 in 2003, and 976,000 in 2007. Soon a million new books will be published every year. One is tempted to say that almost no new work, however mediocre, goes unpublished. And now that technology has democratized the means of production, the cost of producing a book is within reach of nearly every aspiring author. The arrival and increasing sophistication of the Internet is steadily democratizing the means of distribution, rendering traditional bookstores increasingly irrelevant.
The debate over the means by which books are published is, of course, terribly important for publishers worried about profit margins, the habitual ways of conducting their business, and the looming threat of obsolescence. Authors and their agents are understandably anxious. For many readers, however, much of this debate is sterile. For them, what counts is whether and how books will be made available to the greatest number of consumers at the cheapest possible price. Whether readers find books in bookstores or on the Web, or can access them on an application on the smartphones that are already in their pockets by the scores of millions, matters not at all. Content and cost and ease of access rule.
Even a cursory glance at the landscape of contemporary publishing makes it hard not to believe we are living at the apotheosis of cultural literacy. Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented and sold for reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but reclining in a semi-darkened room just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.
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