Whatever Happened to the Book is Happening Now!

At great risk of appearing unneccesarily sycophantic, I need to say that Mark Pesce‘s post, Whatever Happened to the Book,  is clever, unusually clever, even for Mark. Everything that currently intellectually interests (read obsesses me) about literature and our hyperconnected age is explored.

Please read it closely and tell your friends, especially if they are teachers still learning.

Here’s a taste, I particularly enjoyed the third section:

So what of Aristotle?  What does this mean for the narrative?  It is easy to conceive of a world where non-fiction texts simply dissolve into the universal sea of texts.  But what about stories?  From time out of mind we have listened to stories told by the campfire.  The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowolf held listeners spellbound as the storyteller wove the tale.  For hours at a time we maintained our attention and focus as the stories that told us who we are and our place in the world traveled down the generations.
Will we lose all of this?  Can narratives stand up against the centrifugal forces of hypertext?  Authors and publishers both seem assured that whatever happens to non-fiction texts, the literary text will remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form.  The lure of the literary text is that it takes you on a singular journey, from beginning to end, within the universe of the author’s mind.  There are no distractions, no interruptions, unless the author has expressly put them there in order to add tension to the plot.  A well-written literary text – and even a poorly-written but well-plotted ‘page-turner’ – has the capacity to hold the reader tight within the momentum of linearity. Something is a ‘page-turner’ precisely because its forward momentum effectively blocks the centrifugal force.  We occasionally stay up all night reading a book that we ‘couldn’t put down’, precisely because of this momentum.  It is easy to imagine that every literary text which doesn’t meet this higher standard of seduction will simply fail as an electronic book, unable to counter the overwhelming lure of the medium.

Below are a few unformulated reflections. I intend to write a ‘proper’ reflective piece about ‘the book’ and possible futures.

Perhaps, because this topic is obsessing me at the moment – colleagues and friends would have  noted my reactionary but concerted efforts recently to read more books/novels/fiction - I feel, after reading this twice, I want to know  what ‘will’ happen to the concept of the book even more.

Will the ‘literary text…remain pure and untouched, even as it becomes a wholly electronic form’ – one part of me desperately hopes this is the case, like painting or sculpture.

We all love hypertext and many of our ereaders take little or no advantage of the medium. It is true what Mark says about the ‘economic purposes of publishers’ meaning that they will want to publish ‘dead texts’ in the ‘light’ of their ereader platforms. However, one cannot agree with ‘it does not make the electronic book an intrinsically alluring object’. The Kindle, in spite of its limitations is ‘alluring’ to many readers for a host of reasons that Mark dismisses. Primarily the ubiquity, one can download quickly a new release and carry many texts around. I know, from chats with luddite colleagues that, bound in leather, it appeals to traditional lovers of literature but techie types respond well too. There are issues and our cultural publishing industries need to adapt, or even better, innovate quickly.

Ironically, or maybe sadly, I’d like Mark to answer in a 140 characters, ‘what happened’. There is something not quite right about the framing of the piece, as all this has not quite, ‘happened’, not quite, it is all in the process of becoming.

More later…after I have chatted, perhaps with you, readers of this blog.

Your thoughts?

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8 Comments

  1. kmcg2375:

    I think one thing we often forget to do is look at this issue through lens of economic/cultural capital. Libraries are free. Owning your own books is not, and owning an e-reader is more expensive again (although this is offset in the long run by cheaper books). You can lend someone a book for free, but it’s impractical to lend out your Kindle.

    Our arguments often are implicitly about what people who are already readers will do. What about people who don’t read? Will books remain in our reading landscape as an essential tool for providing access to reading for people who don’t have the money or inclination to transition to e-reading?

  2. Kelli, one of the reasons I have been making, and enjoying, my concerted effort to read more novels is to do with school.

    Students who are not culturally literate, in both a traditional and popular sense, are impoverished. We are interested in literacy at school, of course but having a culture of ‘reading’ is just fundamental for any community of learners.

    Most of our school would recognise that I love technology and am a keen about video games, computers, mobile devices, music and popular culture. They also see me read/love books. Our library stats are up and this is paralleled with rolling out 1:1. The narrative we are attempting to make real is the kids who like technology love reading ’cause they love learning.

    We had a prac. teacher the other day say after a 4-week stint, ‘the school respects the culture of the kids’. This made me feel proud for ‘our school’. Any place that respects others is likely to be able to convince that there’s stuff out there other than what you already know.

    Get reading!

  3. Darcy -

    In fact, one of the questioners did make the same point you do, that ubiquity, et. al. is quite alluring. I tend to disagree in the sense that what’s coming will be *so* alluring as to make all of this seem like very weak sauce in comparison.

  4. Damn those ‘futurists’, they’re so optimistic and definitely ‘pushers’ of some coming, what was it, ‘paroxysm of joy’.

  5. kmcg2375:

    I agree with you completely Darcy about a love of reading being a part of loving learning. And I love how technology gives us new in-roads in schools to foster both reading and learning cultures.

    The futurists are right, about what is coming and the impact it will have. And I’m optimistic about it all too. But as to the question of ‘what will happen to the book’, my money is on the book sticking around for awhile yet, simply because a LOT of wider social change has to happen to get the community at large moving in the direction of your school and others.

  6. Margaret Simons’ piece is very different to Mark’s but on a similar theme.

  7. To me Mark’s piece is very much about the potential to add new iterations* to what we call ‘books’ that marry hypertext to books. I don’t think he is talking about replacing books, but rather that ebooks should not replace hypertext in a hypertext-able environment.

    The potential to me is exciting. In it’s most simplistic form, I can see create-your-own adventure novels where readers participate beyond making a choice of direction, and in a more complex form I can imagine books where ambiance is built with video and sound and that could be influenced by our previous semantic web experiences. That won’t stop me from picking up a paper or digital ‘publishing in light’ book and loving it, but it opens a door to some amazing possibilities that have yet to be imagined!

    (*iterations: the best, rather than correct, word that I can come up with.)

  8. Thanks David.

    Yes, that’s what he is saying it seems. One issue for me becomes the actual term ‘book’. I think you are right, that we are in the process of imagining narrative in new forms but at the moment ‘books’ as we know them are going digital via the Kindle etc.. I envisage, for example, like a painter, the novelist will continue to operate on that canvas for quite a while.

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