When C. Max Magee of The Millions offered me a review copy of The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, a new book of essays he edited with Jeff Martin, I couldn’t say no. I don’t know why, but I found the range of responses on the future of books astonishing. I somehow expected most writers to be rather gloomy about prospects especially in the arena of e-books. While some don’t like the idea of e-books, none of the authors think the book is dead or even on life support. Some of them imagine a future book that is radically different and are excited about it and their enthusiasm made me pause and think, “huh, now wouldn’t that be interesting?”
Owen King is one of the few who are extremely concerned. In “Not Quite as Dire as Having Your Spine Ripped Out, but…” he worries that storing e-books and music and all sorts of other digital diversions together will end up being too much distraction. While Joshua Gaylord in “Enduring Literature” suggests that the evolution of digital e-book technology rests on the idea that “literature should be easier to experience” and he doesn’t want reading to be easy.
Sonya Chung comes at the subject from an interesting angle in “In the Corporeal Age, We Will Know the Names of Trees.” She suggests that when
we consider the future of books – the creation, distribution, and consumption thereof – we are considering, I think, questions of human behavior in a changing environment. Meaning, all debates about the evolution of books and book cultures are, at heart, debates about human nature. What do we, as readers and writers, need, desire, fear, value; and how will these manifest in our choices and behavior as we accelerate further into the digital age?
While Marco Roth in “The Outskirts of Progress” sees the “crisis of the book” as really being a “crisis of our free will to culture.” He believes that if we commit ourselves to “the culture of thought, inquiry, and rhetorical expression” then books will naturally be part of that.
John Brandon in “The Three-Day Weekend Plan” suggests we are in the Golden Age of the Novella. I wouldn’t have labeled it a Golden Age, but I must say I have noticed there are more novellas around than there used to be. And Amazon has launched Kindle Singles, works that range in length from 15 – 90 pages. These include journalism, essays, memoirs and fiction. So maybe Brandon is on to something.
Victor LaValle makes a good case on how readers need to get over thinking of books as being sacred objects. He says,
let’s be honest . . . most of the books on your bookshelves might be beautifully designed, and not exactly cheap, but they’re no more divine than a toaster. They are mass-produced items, sold in (occasionally) mass quantities.
It isn’t the book itself but the idea of the book that matters. He even floats the idea of readers being able to edit their books, for instance, removing all of Levin’s farming scenes from Anna Karenina (or, I might suggest, all the whale processing chapters from Moby Dick). Would it really hurt the book? Feel free to discuss.
I could go on about all the various essays and ideas, and thoughts. It is a good book providing lots of food for thought. And since the thoughts and ideas are coming from the people who write the books instead of the techno-evangelists, it makes it even more interesting. After all, these authors are writing about their livelihoods, they have a stake in the outcome. That it isn’t all doom and gloom or an unquestioning embrace of all things digital makes for some good reading. I wish more writers would take the time to express their thoughts on the topic. Perhaps there might be a sequel in the future?