Books = dinosaurs?

Elisabeth Sifton, writing for The Nation, ruminates over the depressing fate looming over the publishing industry. While doing so she rightly points out that:

Over the past twenty years, as we've thrown ourselves eagerly into a joy ride on the Information Superhighway, we've been learning to read, and been reading, differently; and books aren't necessarily where we start or end our education. The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto). In the cacophony of modern American commerce, we hear incoherent squeals of dying life-forms along with the triumphant braying and twittering of new human expression.

This shift in focus, which also marks an alteration in our modern habitus, one which mimics three previous disruptions driven by the emergence of the motion picture, radio and television media, depends upon more than the power, allure and profitability of the internet and the communication devices which depend upon it. It also depends upon the uses modern individuals make of their capacity to read, think and communicate. And it depends even more upon what a modern society expects from its inhabitants. A society such as that found in the United States today, a society in which most individuals are mere worker bees, has no need to sponsor the formation of an informed, sophisticated and active culture. A culture like this would be systematically dysfunctional. Moreover, worker bees would find the capacities to reflect, will, judge and act burdens in their bee-lives. Having these qualities would give them only a sense of alienation and anomie, for they would cease to be mere worker bees once they have completed their acquisitions. They would be instead human beings and potential citizens conforming to their worker bee role.

I would suggest that, insofar as modern societies today approach this dystopian ideal, it is to that degree that books, magazines and newspapers become luxury items which only the leisure class and soundly-vetted professionals have time to use and create. Twitter and Facebook, picture magazines and Fox News will remain the home places for the majority.

Sifton, to her credit, does not torment herself with false hopes:

It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive. Changed reading habits have already transformed and diminished them both. I, for one, don't trust the book trade to see us through this. Wariness is in order. Three centuries ago, John Locke agreed that we shouldn't base our freedom to read books on the proclaimed good offices of the business itself. "Books seem to me to be pestilent things," he wrote in 1704, "and infect all that trade in them...with something very perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers, and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind, that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society, and that general fairness that cements mankind."

Yet history will not end anytime soon. And bookworms can find a bit of hope in the fact that book writing and reading has already survived the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church, the Reformation, Fascism, Stalinism and much else. Books may, then, survive the coming Dark Age too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am wondering if you are familiar with one of my favorite publishers of new voices - Narrative Magazine, an online lit mag whose mission is to bring great literature to the world for free. They certainly are thriving, and and as a non-profit, all of their reading & contest fees go toward paying the authors they publish. Info at www.narrativemagazine.com.