In a fascinating Charlie Rose interview/discussion from 1996 he opens with the proclamation that “a generation ago a new book by a fiction writer was anticipated with a kind of excitement and buzz that is not seen anymore. In the age of internet, information, and images many publishers doubt the younger generation reads very much.” (The interview is embedded below.) This concern over the rising generation being literate and interested in reading time consuming novels still exists, likely with even greater anxiety than when Charlie said it 20 years ago. Back then the internet was still getting started. Not everyone had an email address, personal devices like smartphones and tablets weren’t available, and the reach and impact of social media perhaps only brewed in the minds of dystopian science fictionists. With the aforementioned technology commonplace today the title question seems quite appropriate, “who reads books these days?”
I tend to value books quite a lot. I like to buy them and keep them on my shelves to display as a kind of extension of myself. I also like to read some on my phone so that I can continue a story or non-fiction information accrual while standing in line to pick-up the Friday night Papa John’s pizza, on a flight to a conference, or at night next to my son’s bed as he falls a sleep. It’s nice and convenient. But like many others out there, perhaps all of those out there I have noticed a change since my adoption of the highly portable computers we call phones. A change that is troubling to me as my apparent ability to focus when my iPhone 5s is near drops to less than a minute. A change that is distributing my attention between that which is right in front of me and the alerts, messages, or snarky comments that might be there for me if I just check ‘real quick.’ And that distribution seems to be thinning my attention to the point of no longer existing.
Is technology our downfall? Are we becoming lesser humans by relying on technology more and presumably reading less (or perhaps only being able to read less than 140 characters)? Are we melding ourselves to our devices and the larger non-human digital network? I don’t know about that, but I do have concerns. Like Aziz Ansari, I’m concerned over our apparent addiction to reading lots of stuff that really doesn’t matter much. It can feel like we “read the Internet so much” that we are “on page a million of the worst book ever.” This split between keeping up with current events and considering our use of time productive and worthwhile seems to be a perennial one. One that always seems to pop up during technological change, whether that means we humans are just starting write down our stories, whether we are inventing the printing press, or if we now are having to learn to balance breaking news, opinion blogs, facebook discussions, twitter mobs, and still catch up on all those great books that we were supposed to read in high school but never got around to. Change creates anxiety for sure, but what I’m curious about is if our interest in seeking knowledge or committing time to long stories (in the form of big books, not FB battles) is disappearing or just floating among the many ways we can use our time.
I actually think that we are doing fine, despite my attention issues. I notice the appeal of an 8 second cat video over a 5 minute one, and a 1000 word blog post is far more readable, and more likely to be read, than a 4,500 word Atlantic article, but I also recognize that big long books are still being purchased and read by the masses. Lots of things that were once thought to be going away haven’t. Even with the rise of ebooks and the mass appeal of the kindle marketplace, paper books are still popular. Even those most thought to shun hard copies (youth growing up in a digital world, millennials) still prefer chemical ink on dead trees over the electronic kind, for both novels and textbooks.
A love and respect for books expressed through frustration with competing technology is not new since Charlies Rose’s discussion with David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen & Mark Leyner (they clearly thought television was changing society and sucking up much of the time people presumably would have spent reading). In 1979 Pink Floyd’s The Wall seems lament the option of having “thirteen channels of shit on the T.V. to choose from.” (Shhhh! Don’t tell Pink about satellite and cable T.V. packages of the 1990s that had much more than 13 channels.) And in my favorite Incubus album released in 1997, Brandon Boyd called the television an “Idiot Box” that “tells [us] what to believe.” Media certainly affects us in negative (but also in positive ways). And sure I have wasted time scrolling through my in-laws hundreds of channels, my own netflix offerings, or my facebook feed but I have also set aside time to buckle down and read something new and exciting or inform myself about the past by reading books, thin ones and thick ones.
I think the problem we are dealing with is one of choice and will. We have lots of ways we can kill time but we also have lots of ways to learn, both shallow and deep ways. I wonder how long the printed book will be a part of our entertainment and educational experience or if it will ever leave us completely. What do you think?