Hi Barb here. I’m in Key West where the temperature is hovering at 66 degrees and everyone is complaining about the cold. (Don’t hate me.)
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Constitutionally, I have to say I hate all conversations that have the theme, “Things were great back then, and they’re crap now.” They make my blood pressure rise, and I begin to sputter. As a young person my reaction was, “Why are you telling me this? You mean I have to live my whole life in crappier times? How can that information help me in any way?” As an adult, I hate these conversations because I’ve learned they’re ubiquitous and cyclical. Everyone’s lamenting the rise of Barnes & Noble, and then everyone’s lamenting their fall. People also tend to cast the past in a rosy glow, while ignoring the advantages of the present.
But the main reason I hate these sentiments is because we are not going back there, people. Ever. And it would be terrible if we did. There’s a reason being “bombed back to the stone age,” is a threat and not a promise.
All of us who write and publish think and speculate about the publishing industry. It is, I think, the curse of “interesting times.” I wasn’t a published author ten years ago, so I don’t have any other context. Now is my reality.
I think the whole debate about ebooks is a snare and a delusion. My goodness, what impact does a slightly different device delivering the exact same content matter?
And that’s what dedicated e-readers do. They deliver the written word, for the most part meant to be read linearly. In fact, they excel at supporting written-word, linear reading, since they’re not so great for either graphics or browsing.
Those dedicated ereaders aren’t the game changers, in my opinion. It’s the iPads and other tablets people are now reading on and everything else that is on them. The videos, the games, the photos, the internet and the rest of the world.
The question is not whether people will read print versus e. It’s whether we will continue to have an interest in stories told in written prose in a linear fashion at all.
I come from the educational technology world where as part of my work I helped textbook publishers envision the brave new world they were entering. There, the whole ebook debate seemed particularly crazy to me. As a device for transmitting knowledge across distances, in the 18th and 19th century books were the best that we had. To make books work, a lot of non-linear, non-prose things had to be force fit. (Remember, pulling yourself out of the prose to find Figure A. some pages away in the book, and wildly trying to make sense of Figure A. with the prose you were reading?) Why would we take those clunky accommodations and move them to digital textbooks? Shouldn’t demonstrations be videos? Shouldn’t discussions of cause and effect be interactive simulations? Language learning clearly should have audio components. Practice quizzes should be interactive and branch based on the knowledge you demonstrate and should link you right back to remedial information for the questions you got wrong. Footnotes should link you to the original text. And so on.
Which has me wondering about the future of the novel. It took a very specific set of conditions to allow the prose novel to arise. The printing press had to be invented, for one thing. Enough people had to be literate for there to be audience. Before that, stories were told in epic poems and plays because even if they were written down, the principle means of transmission had to be oral to reach the bulk of the audience. And paper had to be cheap enough for books to move beyond the Bible and critical history and science tomes to become a form of entertainment.
All these were the technology and societal revolutions of their times.
And now, all the conditions that gave rise to the novel are changing again. Video production gets cheaper and cheaper, there are a thousand channels on the TV (which you watch on tablet screen anyway) and the brightest story-telling minds may be off creating video games.
When you hand my eight-month-old granddaughter a board book, she runs her hands across the surface of the pages and squawks in frustration because the pictures don’t change and it doesn’t make any noises the way Mummy’s phone does.
The novel is already much diminished in its influence. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” When Joe Biden switched his position on gay marriage, he attributed it to the television show Will & Grace. I believe without any evidence that if Dickens were alive today, he’d be working in serial television for Showtime.
So why, you may be wondering, have I dedicated my second career and my final act to working in a form I believe is obsoleting? The truth is, if I were younger and lived somewhere else and had different talents, I might give one of those other media a go. But as Popeye says, “I yam what I yam.”
Besides there’s that old saw from my much younger days, “If the railroad executives had realized they were in the transportation business they’d be running the airlines.” (Which to me ignores a lot of important stuff about monopolies and core competencies, not to mention how crummy being in the airline business has turned out to be.) But the point is the right one. We’re not in the novel business, we’re in the story-telling business, and story-telling is wired deep in our DNA and will be with us as long as the species survives.
There’s also the stove. When stoves first came indoors, there was a hue and cry across England about these things that were dangerous and would probably kill you (and sometimes did) and would destroy the family, no longer gathered around the hearth. And central heating–oh my God! The work of the devil. But when developers build expensive condos in skyscrapers today, they often still include gas fireplaces. Which are not a source of heat or light or cooked food, but we still love to stare into them. New technologies may come to dominate, but it takes a long time for old ones to disappear completely.
So somewhere in the future someone will be sitting by a fire, reading a novel. It won’t be her principal form of fiction or entertainment, just as the fire won’t be her principal form of heat or light. The fire may be propelled by a fuel not yet invented, and the novel might be transmitted on the inside of her eye glasses (or her eyeballs). But still, the picture I see in my mind’s eye is a pretty one.
So what do you think dear readers (if you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy post). How do you see the brave, new world?