A fascinating article from Sam Leith on the changes to the books industry post-Internet age:
You won’t find any shortage of people willing to pronounce the printed book doomed, arguing that the convenience and searchability of digital text and the emergence of a Kindle-first generation will render them obsolete.
Frankly (perhaps because I just read fiction on my iPhone and iPad), I’ve never used the searchability options, but I can’t deny that the portability and – in particular – the synching capability of the Kindle app has saved me from some very long and boring train journeys.
So, despite my love of the feel and texture and even the smell of books, I’m a convert to the concept. At least for fiction.
But there are reasons to reject the idea that the extinction of the printed book is just around the corner, just as there were reasons to reject the notion that e-books would never catch on because you couldn’t read them in the bath and, y’know, books are such lovely objects.
They are. I would never jettison all my used books – some of which have been bought as much for the illustrations as the content – for shiny new e-copies, because they mean more to me than just a source of entertainment or learning, but rather a link to my childhood.
In some ways, though, the question of whether we do our reading off paper or plastic is the least interesting one. More interesting is what we’re reading, and the manner in which we do so. A large number of literate westerners spend most of their waking hours at computers, and those computers are connected to the web. The characteristic activity on such a computer has been given the pleasing name “wilfing”, adapted from the acronym WWILF, or “What was I looking for?” You work a bit. You check if it’s your move in Facebook Scrabble. You get an email. You answer it. You get a text. You answer it. Since your phone’s in your hand, you play Angry Birds for five minutes. You work a bit. You go online to check something, get distracted by a link, forget what you were looking for, stumble on a picture of a duck that looks like Hitler, share it on Twitter, rinse and repeat.
Oh, I do identify with that!
Sci-fi author Cory Doctorow has called the internet “an ecosystem of interruption technologies”. TS Eliot’s line “distracted from distraction by distraction” seems apt. Zadie Smith, among other writers, has said that the key to the sustained attention required to create a novel is to work on a computer that isn’t online.
Or perhaps, buy a typewriter?
… it’s fair to wonder what, if anything, it is doing to our heads.
I think we can see what it’s doing to our heads. Studies abound, some foretelling awful visions of dystopia, others looking on the brighter side, as Sam points out:
There are two main schools of thought. One is that modern culture is making us cleverer. In Everything Bad Is Good for You, Steven Johnson observes that IQ scores in the west are rising, and argues that pop culture – from soaps to video games to the web – is responsible.
Of course, to look at IT in isolation from everything else considered an ‘advance’ (better nutrition, greater freedom, better healthcare) is probably wrong…
In the other corner is Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. He thinks the web is making us more stupid. We surf the shallows in a state of permanent distraction, and concentrate on no single thing for long enough to engage properly with it. Since much of our mental energy is spent processing the medium, little is left for the message.
Now, there’s a man who’s got a Twitter account!
If it really were the case that our attention spans are shortening, you might expect to see a wholesale revival of interest in short stories, or even lyric poems, and a tendency for full-length books to shrink. But we’re not seeing that. Instead we’re seeing Wolf Hall, Fingersmith, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Corrections, Underworld, Infinite Jest, Tree of Smoke, and fat Stephen King after fat Stephen King.
And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
What say you? Are books in their physical format dead?