Put that tablet computer down.
I mean, don't put it down if you're reading this blog. Send messages to all of your friends about the blog, and THEN put it down.
And don't reach for your TV remote, either!
See those stacks of thinly sliced trees across the room with the colorful cardboard covers? Those are books. You used to read them. They miss you, and more to the point, you probably don't realize just how much you miss them.
I know you do. You're just numb to the surrounding din. If you're reading this blog, you're a reader already. Blogs like this one, about creativity and philosophy and life and all that artsy-airy stuff, tend to attract people already inclined to the slow-motion pleasures books. But there's no prejudice here: books ought to matter to wide populations more than they do these days.
Listen to Public Radio and you'll start to think books grow on trees rather than get manufactured from tree pulp. "So-and-so is the author of a new book on…" seems to be the opening line to interviews all day long. To a lesser, but still significant degree this phenomenon appears on television news programs, too--an ironic reality for a medium that often appeals to viewers who'd never think of picking up a book. The message from mainstream media is that everyone writes books. Therefore it would be easy to be suckered into a false belief that people actually, y'know, still read 'em.
You already know what the problem is, don't you? The ubiquity of electronic devices and the ease of consumption for the data they serve outweighs the comparative work of focusing on black words on white pages. No pictures! No sounds! No birds knocking bricks out from above thieving pigs! What's more, the stories we consume in books often take days to experience. Pages go by in minutes, not seconds. Action scenes happen only in the mind's eye; characters unspool only if we apply ourselves to the words writers use to bring them to life. I'm not opposed to electronic books, per se. But I sometimes wonder if the ability for them to facilitate quick jaunts to email is like having doughnuts on the kitchen counter when someone else in the house is trying to lose weight. It's a temptation that simply stacks the deck against even the toughest resolve.
The loss of a book culture is incalculable. Electronic methods of communication simply do not function in the same way. In the singular way that sustained reading focuses the mind, books ask us to absorb precisely because we must make room for them. They require our participation to work, where videos and blog posts and photos and tweets barely require our attention at all. Words function differently in different formats, and pictures are not replacements at all. I say this as a guy who not only makes his living making pictures, but genuinely loves good pictures. It's simply that they're not interchangeable. Pictures do not replace books.
The loss of a book culture is the transformative process in a culture that cannot sit still and has trouble thinking complex thoughts. Can the culture do complex things? Sure: cell phone networks are intensely complex enterprises. Next day package delivery systems require astounding algorithms and organizational plans. But there's a difference between complex technical requirements and introspection. Values clarification never comes from technological achievement, and morality--flexible and fuzzy though that term may be to diverse audiences-- can not accrue without introspection andexperience.
This lament does not confine itself to fiction. Non-fiction books matter, too. Countless titles on the miles of non-fiction literature shelves can thrill and inspire in ways just like fiction. But even here, the trend is to wade ankle deep in Wikipedia rather than dive into the deep waters of a full length tome. Science may move faster than the speed of conventional printing presses these days, and not for a second do I suggest that it should slow down. But practical information skimming as a replacement for deep knowledge acquisition are not equatable.
The irony here is that people read now more than ever. Short non-fiction on the web has exploded, with texts of all sorts evolving in real-time. Blogs, new journalism, long form articles, tweets, comment forums, and more constitute an ocean of content that never existed before and competes ferociously for time. But while the level of wordplay may have risen in some sectors as a result of Darwinian pressures in the marketplace, I worry about audiences losing touch with the merits of sustained focus on singular topics.
Modernity has also turned us into consumers of endless instruction manuals, often hyperlinked on electronic platforms, chockablock with detailed information. Are they books? Technically they are. But to claim that instruction manuals for video cameras and networkable toaster ovens and programmable vacuum cleaners have the equivalent heft of novels and histories and other works of sustained thinking is to misunderstand the value proposition. Even pulpy trade paperbacks, showcasing soapy romances or endless spy capers of limited literary legerdemain have are a loss. In the sustained focus of reading the culture learns how to critically assess detail and imagination and opportunities that are not simply simply a click away.
In a thought experiment that will never find it's way into real-world practice, the best way to make non-readers pick up a book may be to lock them in a prison for a few months surrounded by richly stocked bookcases and no hope of escape. Given a paucity of stimulation people are naturally curious. With nothing else to do but read, I have to believe that most captives would rather open a book and escape. Outside prison walls, the very same action--picking up a book-- is the very opposite of escape. It is an act of quiet engagement. But faced with the beeping, blinking stimulations of the real, non-captive world, natural curiosity often struggles to overcome the ubiquitous distractions all around. Books require a measure of mental isolation, of focus. The modern world does not like to leave us alone.
I don't read nearly as much as I would like, despite my best intentions or druthers. The books that matter to me stay with me everyday. Characters are my friends, my advisors, my foils. Stories become my maps and my inspirations. In a culture that sees the power of this old fashioned technology fading into a quaint antiquity, I lament the implications even as I struggle to find the time to turn the page.
--MS (Hey, you can follow me on Twitter @michaelstarobin if you're so motivated.)
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