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The future of books

Edward A. Larkin | Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Books have been a remarkably constant artistic creation for thousands of years. We flip through the pages of Homer’s epic poetry of 2,700 years ago in much the same way as we might Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower Series. So too with the musings of Marcus Aurelius and the autobiography of Bill Clinton. The characters of Euripides jump from written words to our mind just as Jonathan Franzen’s. This durability is all the more impressive against the backdrop of changes in other art forms — compare the Athenian acropolis to the New York City skyline; Greek vase paintings to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Norman Rockwell; the plays of Shakespeare to Avatar or Inception. Surely this timelessness is part of the book’s appeal. Reading a great story is no small emotional investment. It is an intimate endeavor that asks from us just as much as it provides. But can books survive in the modern world? Some commentators have castigated modernity as too fragmented and fast-paced for the novel to remain relevant, what with Twitter, blogging and the 24-hour news cycle.

Philosopher Marshall McLuhan called books a “hot” media — they require a lot of effort. Contrast this with TV, a “cool” media — not difficult to consume, a lot of stimulation in reward. We are forced to assimilate all the details of a book into a coherent whole, to take words and create pictures. We are asked to come back again and again, sitting after sitting, slowly inching along. No matter how exquisite a movie or how beautiful a monument, books are fundamentally different. Their beauty is in the mind — a great book written on paper napkins is still better than a lesser one, no matter how well packaged. This might seem like a dying art in the modern age. Even the most fantastical worlds can be portrayed on TV and movie screens all over the world. Why should we bother with the effort of constructing worlds when we don’t have to?

There are many pieces of evidence that seem to suggest that books are past their prime. Nicholas Carr laments in his 2008 piece in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” that the rise of the Internet makes it harder for him to focus on reading difficult or extended material, saying that the internet is inherently designed to “scatter our attention,” unlike the focusing effect of novels. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle agrees in her recent book, “Alone Together.” She argues that the culture of the novel is dying, with harmful societal consequences. She points to studies that reveal a startling lack of empathy among modern college students and asserts that other research has shown that reading novels increases one’s capacity for empathy. Surveys consistently show that Americans are reading fewer books per year compared to the past decades. Thus, the situation appears very dire indeed.

However, we humans seem to have an innate tendency for melodrama. Ironically, 2,500 years ago Socrates warned that books cause us to be forgetful. And while this may be true (the advent of the written word made bards like Homer who could memorize entire epics like the Iliad obsolete) books have come to be a culturally beneficial development on the whole. There is reason for optimism despite the perceived full-frontal assault on reading. Technology is making books of all sorts more accessible than ever. Rather than trekking to a bookstore, you can now buy and read eBooks instantaneously from Barnes & Noble or Amazon, usually for much lower prices. Many of the classics are free online through Google Books and other sources.

To be sure, the Internet and electronics will cause the craft of writing to change. However, this need not be a cause of alarm. Authors will have more tools at their disposal to display their mastery. Imagine reading an eBook where the page color changes slightly according to the mood, music plays at different times to heighten the drama or the background matches the setting in the novel. Pictures and live content could be added seamlessly to augment the narrative. Maybe you don’t understand a particular reference or allusion. Click on the phrase, and a concise bubble pops up to explain it or you are rerouted to a Wikipedia page. These developments will make reading a more rewarding, textured experience, and certainly allow new methods for artistic expression on the part of authors.

What about the charge that reading extended narratives simply doesn’t fit in modern society? This charge overlooks a fundamental aspect of human nature, something that can’t simply be ameliorated by Twitter or TV. We deeply desire the satisfactions provided by novels — getting to know characters intimately, following detailed stories to their conclusion over a long period of time. Reading is the form of the art that most mirrors reality — unlike two hour movies, the time frame often fits with our lives.

As we read books, they become a part of us. We read F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while engrossed in the world of Gatsby, start to notice the gilded things around us. We read Orwell and become heightened to the darker side of politics; we read The Picture of Dorian Gray and look in the mirror a little differently. No matter how laudable the acting performances or how profound the Tweet, we desire the granular detail and extended pleasures of books. It is this essential desire that has given books their profound power and immutability since the dawn of writing, and it is this same desire that will ensure that they remain relevant, in some form or other, as we march towards the future.

Edward Larkin is a senior majoring in biological sciences and classical civilization. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.