the future of "the book" and time for thought

My colleague Karen Stearns has brought the NEA Big Read project to our campus and Cortland country. We’re reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and I’ve been asked to do a presentation on "the future of the book" with my librarian colleague Dan Harms. I’m imaging a general college audience, so on some level this will be fairly introductory but this is what I’m planning on discussing.

When we talk about the "future of the book" we have to ask what we are talking about. The surface response is the fear that the web, television, and other media are leading people away from reading books. Obviously this world is depicted, if not caricatured, in the novel. So here are some statistics that provide some context. The Association of American Publishers reports that in terms of dollars overall book sales increased 2.4% from 2002 to 2006. Adult paperbacks increased 5% during this period. The number of publishers has increased significantly since the beginning of the Internet Age from 52,000 in 1994 to 85,000 in 2004. There are also increases in new titles and overall number of titles.

This doesn’t mean that people aren’t spending more time doing other things, but it seems to indicate that by some measures the book industry is doing OK.

We also have to ask what we mean by "book." Does anyone care if my dictionary is now online? How about my atlas? Or my cook book or phone book or encyclopedia? Does it matter if my technical manuals are web-based? How about the readings for my courses? No, I think when people worry about the future of the book, they are worrying about a particular narrow set of books: fiction, poetry, drama, and particular kinds of nonfiction books that are more "intellectual" or something. It’s actually even more narrow than that I believe. Is anyone really worried about the future life of books like the Gossip Girls? Or the latest installment in Star Trek series novels?

I don’t think so. What folks are worried about, if they are worried, is the future of literature and nonfiction texts that rise to that "level." If we worry at all about those other books it’s only because reading them might keep us mentally limber for tackling "serious books."

However Bradbury explores this issue in a very different way in F451. When Montag starts to shift his world view, he comes to meet with the professor Faber, and Faber goes into a long discussion of books. Here are some key passages:

It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and television, but are not.  No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for!

Number one: Doy know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are.

Number one, as I said: quality of information. Number two: leisure to digest it. And number three: the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the intersection of the first two.

So it’s not books, but what certain books can offer us. In The Art of the Novel, Kundera argues that the value of the novel lies in its ability to consider questions that cannot be addressed by philosophy or science, questions of indeterminacy. I see that here in the "infinite profusion"  of life and texture. But perhaps even more interesting than this description of "quality" are the importance of time for thinking about what one has read and then ultimately the ability to take action.

As such, perhaps what we can see here is the securing a future for what is important about books lies in the continued aesthetic and philosophical exploration of life in all its indeterminacy, creating opportunities for readers to consider what they have read, and experimenting with how reading might shape our everyday lives. In my view, these practices have always been at risk and practicing them has always been risky in one way or another.

I don’t want to hop on the celebratory bandwagon for the internet, but I don’t believe that new technologies have endangered these practices. Overall I imagine that we will continue to have text for the foreseeable future. And it would also be my guess that we will have paper texts for some time, though I could be wrong about that. When technologies like the Kindle become cheap and easy enough to compete with paperbacks, they will probably eat into them quite a bit. And I also imagine that the novel will change with technology, just as the novel, and narrative in general, has always changed with technologies. But we will still have novels and philosophical texts and other works of literature and nonfiction.  Indeed in some ways, the long tail of the web has made it market-feasible to publish a wider range of texts and the free distribution of texts on the web has also meant the availability of more text.

So the future of the "book" is healthy. What is always at risk, and always at risk in Bradbury’s works, is thinking.

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