Sunday, August 24, 2008

world without books

It's Sunday morning in August and I don't feel like writing. I feel like reading. Something offline. The Times, in its original, crinkly version. Then something bigger. Bookier. Something literary. Which makes me part of a dwindling crowd. According to Amy Stolls, Program Officer at the NEA, fewer than half of American adults now read literature.

Seems books are becoming an endangered species. (Hard to go to a party in NYC these days without a downsized publishing exec ranting about this.) I love my Kindle, sure, but it doesn't replace a book in the hand: the pleasurable heft, the solid page dense with vivid black marks by which you are channelled into an alternate universe--no power source required. (During daylight, anyway.) I use my Kindle to read in transit--on the subway or trains or planes when I am travelling and trying to minimize luggage. I load it with various newspapers from around the world (they update automatically!) and books which if I like them enough, I find myself buying in hardcopy to finish, parallel-reading them the old-fashioned way, because somehow, curling up with a Kindle in bed just doesn't provide the same satisfaction.

But do enough others feel about books as I do, enough to keep the enterprise going?

Sadly, Amy, in a POV from her perch at NEA, doesn't think so:
It's 2025 and you want a book⎯you being a senior who still fondly remembers books and a book being a non-voice-activated, tangible, artfully designed, paper and in-scented collection of human-generated original prose. Tmes are rough. An MP3 of the SparkNotes for "The DaVinci Code" has replaced the Bible in every hotel in America and Harry Potter is a middle-aged couch potato on welfare. You know this about Harry because you put him there in the videogame "Write the Next Harry Potter Sequel." Paper, pens, rubber eraser⎯they no longer exist. The last of the book critics wrote the last book review of a Post-it note from Pynchon while Pynchon was in the other room surfing YouTube.

It's 2025, and in the latest census, 87% of the population claimed "writer" as an occupation. The universal library of all human verbiage shows 1.4 million genres, with 230,000 subcategories labeled "For Dummies."

[You search for a book to read online] and subliminal ads pop up and whisper breathy directives while massaging your neck and temples, all from the sole remaining New York-based, foreign-owned publishing conglomerate in America, which paid the author an advance equal to the national debt. The book, which the author claims is nonfiction, is about an ogre who writes a book. The author's already sold the rights for his next book, "What I Would Have Written Had I Written a Book," which he claims is fiction. You don't care; your neck feels good. You're sure you're going to love it. [Complete premonition in Creative Nonfiction, Issue 31]
While this vision portends interesting briefs for digital agencies in the future, it's sad to contemplate a world without books, which would also be a world without bookstores and libraries, one where stalwart lions on Fifth Avenue might preside over a marble Pinkberry instead.


Anonymous said...


I wouldn't take this futuristic stuff too seriously. Remember growing up? If these guys knew anything, we'd all be riding around with jet packs and eating food out of tubes.

Nothing moves in a straight line. The future may be better than we expect and it may be worse, but one thing's for sure -- it ain't gonna be what we expect it to be.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Reassuring point, Bob. Thanks. But what still worries me is how many things past futurists WERE right about: scameraphones, private jets, test tube babies, superhighways, video conferencing, power bars. But if they're also right about global warming, I suppose I don't have to worry as books WILL be around...though there will be no one left to read them.

Joker said...

Great time to want to become a writer huh? lol. Oh well, won't stop me from writing. :D

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@Joker Well, as I understand it, Henry James tried not to be discouraged by a general conviction that the publishing business was over.

Anonymous said...

Reports like this depress me. I wouldn't be a writer today if I hadn't kept company with books my entire life. And I can't imagine going to bed at night without doing a little reading first. (Of course, I don't have a Kindle, so maybe I just don't know what I'm missing.)

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

I'm with you, Jenny. There's nothing like sinking into bed with a good book. An actual book. One that makes you turn pages, not a switch ;)