Monday, June 21, 2010

On E-books and the End of the World as We Don't Know It

One thing that we’re really enjoying about the ongoing discussion about ebooks and the future of publishing is how it tends to bring out the nuttiness that so many writers and critics usually try to suppress. Though as entertaining as Garrison Keillor’s speech o’doom and the like are, we’re less impressed by the lack of historical thinking that happens when people are performing such prognostications. Consider for a moment this bit from the first in a series (shudder) on the “future of books” at The Globe and Mail:
One distinct trend of the Internet age is the return of the Victorian-style triple-decker: huge, unwieldy novels that let netizens tune out the annoying chatter of their native realm by means of total immersion in alternative realities. Between them, J.R.R Tolkein and J.K. Rowling set a powerful magic afoot, and it took flight in the Internet age.
Right, because, you know literary masterworks are generally slight, like The Iliad, The Decameron, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Quick and The Dead, and on and on.

What bothers us here is not that this is wrong (we all make mistakes from time to time), but the way in which it is wrong. Because this author, John Barber, sees that there are some large novels out there (as there have always been) and that the Internet, well, exists, so therefore the two must be somehow causally related. The entire history of the novel here is swept under the rug to connect dots because the dots seem to be close together, not because they form any sort of whole.

Using this mode of thinking, I could also make the exact opposite argument for the recent interest in flash fiction? By this logic, the Internet makes people want to read things that are both longer and shorter.

My point here is that the Internet, especially in the publishing world, becomes a nexus for all sorts of anxieties that often don't have anything at all to do with ebooks, digital publishing, Kindles, iPads, book piracy, Google Editions or any of the other several dozen barbarians at the gate.

Perhaps reading and publishing will change forever—it wouldn’t be the first time—and perhaps they won’t. The damnable part is that most of us don’t know which of those possibilities is more desirable, and this fact seems to be the core motivator for much of our contemporary befuddlement. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and, what’s worse, we don’t know anyone who does know.

This state of affairs reminds me of passage by a writer likewise concerned about the direction of literature:
If we make a century our test, and ask how much of the work produced in these days in England will be in existence then, we shall have to answer not merely that we cannot agree upon the same book, but that we are more than doubtful where such a book there is. It is an age of fragments.[…]Can we go to posterity with a sheaf of loose pages, or as the readers of those days, with the whole of literature before them, to sift our enormous rubbish heaps for our tiny pearls?
And while the subject matter here is somewhat related to the questions of our day, it is again not just the nature of the question itself that I find resonat, but also the way it is framed and who framed it----Virginia Woolf in 1923.

It would seem the more we think things change, the more we forget that often much stays the same.


  1. Love this post - can I say an A-men?

  2. I've spoken to lecturers who believe that the book will be abolished in the next ten years.

    As much as the text remains the same, it's the aesthetic of the book that I love. So I don't see this happening any time soon.

    While I find things like Kindles etc horredously ugly, I can understand and appreciate why people want them (sort of).

    I think many critics are just getting themselves into a flap for the fun of it.

  3. Why can't we all just get along? I love the book as object, but I am seriously tempted by the Nook and will probably get one. One thing I have noticed is that doom usually arrives from a direction where no one is looking;)

  4. Great post. I still love the look, feel, and even smell of an old hardcover, but I have been reading more on a Sony eReader (like it for books, but not much else) and an iPad (hate it for books, but love it for everything else). I foresee a future in which I will make the switch to digital entirely, and it makes me just a little bit sad.

  5. Bethany- I really think the worst case scenario for lovers of the book-object really isn't that bad--something like how there are people that love/collect fountain pens. They'll be around for those who want them (perhaps at a premium price) but still around.

    Biblio- Yea, if we were so good at predicting radical change, then it wouldn't be so radical, right? And I am close I think to getting an ereader of some kind. I think it'll be fantastic for certain kinds of reading.

    Patrick- Curious...what's the flaw with the iPad for books? Sort of interested in one myself.

  6. In short, the iPad is too heavy, too blurry, and too reflective to make it a good ereader in my opinion. We did a more extended review over at The Literate Man ( Don't get me wrong, I love the iPad ... just not for books.

  7. Hmmm...I agree that perhaps proposing a causal relationship between internet/long books is problematic (bracketing the obvious point that any claim to the causal is problematic). But I think half-way through your post you conflate two different causal relationships.

    The writer seems to be suggesting that the Internet age, with its all its short-form (140 characters!) writing, has created a need for literary immersion, hence the popularity of 600-page books.

    I agree with you here: the writer shouldn't put the connection so strongly.Just because two things happen together, doesn't mean they are related.

    However, your counter-examples of long literary works refutes another causal claim -- that the internet brought about long books, period -- which I don't think this writer is saying at all.

    He even writes 'the return of ...' implying that long books have existed and enjoyed popularity in the past. So your examples of long literary works confuses the point you are taking issue with.

    Personally, I think the writer gets himself into trouble here:

    huge, unwieldy novels that let netizens tune out the annoying chatter of their native realm by means of total immersion in alternative realities.

    It is not implausible or uninteresting -- it is the essence of his causal claim -- he just needed to take it further.

    Otherwise, I agree with you: people are uncertain about the future of publishing, and this uncertainty prompts a lot of ridiculous (and some intelligent) speculation. I just don't think this writer was quite as ridiculous as you made him out to be.

    Love your blog, though!

  8. Patrick-
    I read your iPad take and I didn't really think about the weight in your hands problem while reading. Dammit, thought the decision about which to buy would be easier.

  9. Devon-
    You might be right; I can see how I might be making a strawman arugment about the origin of long books, but I think that's because of the curious phrasing about "Tolkien and Rowling set a powerful magic afoot." This sounds to me like he is attributing some sort of genesis to them, which is mostly what I am objecting to with my counter-examples. It's also weird that he says the "return of the Victorian-style triple-decker" and then cites Tolkien and Rowling, neither of whom are Victorian or write in anything like a Victorian style. Size I guess, but that's a weak connection.

    What I really want here is some historical accuracy--or at least consistent inaccuracy.

    And thanks for stopping by and reading.

  10. Great. I've found the perfect blog... I am one such person who is slap-bang in the middle of all this confused high-tech book-reading phenomenon.

    I love books the way they are. The smell of them makes me all warm inside. I don't think books will disappear off the shelves entirely - but there is something about the process of creating a book that shouldn't be changed. I'm one of those people who resist technological advances for as long as humanly possible.

    BTW, love your reading list. I need to get my hands on 'Less Than Zero' before I move onto 'Imperial Bedrooms'.

  11. I actually side both ways: traditional and eBook. I still enjoy both equally although I do see myself being more and more geared towards my Kindle. When I go to make purchases for books, I go straight to instead of Barnes & Nobles or Borders. I do see eBooks slowly creeping up and taking over, but it probably won't be till another good five to ten years.