Friday, June 4, 2010

It Takes a Nation of Bloggers to Hold Us Back:
More Musings About E-readers

I've written about the decline of the book as a conveyer of information for this blog before. You've probably read about the subject in hundreds of other places across the Internet (or, if you're old-fashioned, maybe even in print). At this point there's not that much more to say about the fall of books and the rise of their e-prefixed counterparts; the same tired arguments that are either pro-book or pro-Kindle have been recycled and tossed back and forth for the past few years now.

So when a major event like BookExpoAmerica rolled around last week, it wasn't so much what the pundits were saying than how clever they were at saying it. Garrison Keillor summed it up with perhaps my favorite line of the whole affair: that the convention felt "like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen."

Keillor's column is fairly pessimistic, but it's hard not to read about the declining state of the publishing industry and feel the same way that he does. There are some columns, such as this one at the Kansas City Star, that try and paint the BEA as a still vibrant community of writers, editors and publishers. But the argument basically boils down to "There were some celebrities there and not everyone looked miserable."

Meanwhile, Ruth Franklin's column at The New Republic paints what seems to be a fairly accurate picture - the BEA is shrinking, the once lavish parties have been cut back as revenues fall, and there is a pervading sense of dread in the air. The publishing industry is not dead by any means, but it's certainly in a transitional state and no one seems to be willing to predict what joys or disasters the future might hold.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room is the rise of non-print media as a medium for literature. Whether it be reading newspaper articles on an iPhone or downloading entire novels onto one's Kindle, portable devices seem more and more the way of the future. It's doubtful that books will ever fully disappear, but it's growing increasingly likely that they will no longer be our primary source of information. The columnists and journalists at BEA have been prattling on nonstop about these electronic possibilities (as well they should; it's possible these devices might save the newspaper industry). The publishers themselves, meanwhile, seem far more reticent to embrace e-readers. It's a major shake-up in an industry that has been pretty technologically stagnant for a while now.

But, as I said, the narrative is a familiar one, and it's very easy to write the same sort of article whenever there's a halfway important event that concerns the publishing industry: decline of publishing, rise of e-readers, reluctance to make the shift. You could write a similar article about iPods and music or Netflix and movies while changing very little; each of these involves a major industry completely transformed by technology in a very short amount of time, leaving professionals unsure how to adapt to these changes.

But what is actually at stake here? As much as we like to wax nostalgic about the feel of a hardback book in our hands, or the ability to get a fold a newspaper into quarters on the subway, that's not really enough to get all worked into a frenzy. What are we so scared about losing as the old format wanes into irrelevance? Or is it anything more than mere nostalgia?

The issue that many people see with the growth of e-readers is the decline of importance of the medium. In his column, Keillor worries about "the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives." He goes on to discuss the idea that once "publishing" a book is so incredibly simple, it also becomes incredibly expendable. Much like iPods have effectively turned the past thousands years of an artform into perpetual background music, with e-readers comes the possibility of relegating books and news articles to literary background noise - something to read for two and three minutes at a time while waiting in line at the checkout, or on the toilet.

There are other issues with the new format, editorial control chief among them. But Keillor seems to have hit the nail on the head with his comments - there have been a lot of studies recently that have showcased the fact that information just doesn't stick in your head the same way when you read it on an electronic device. Nicholas Carr, the author of Is Google Making Us Stupider? and the new book The Shallows, writes of the myriad problems of reading texts on electronic devices, but it's not hard to figure out his main gist. Reading stuff on your laptop, your smartphone, even your Kindle, there's always a large number of possible distractions just a mouseclick away. Our brains can't concentrate as heavily when reading texts on these devices, because our brains have been conditioned to use these devices for multitasking and short, abrupt changes in direction (how many tabs do you have open right now as you read this?). Even those ubiquitous hyperlinks, Carr argues, are an "extra cognitive load placed on your brain."

The irascible Steve Jobs has been vilified a lot lately (partially by me; I'm still upset about the pillage and sack of Lala). But the Wall Street Journal recently credited him with the quote, "I don't want to see us descend into a nation of bloggers," before going on to praise editorial oversight.

As one of the bloggers, perhaps I'm part of the problem. But I like to think that ChargeShot!!! (and other quality blogs) are a compliment to traditional journalism, not a substitute for it. Similarly, I worry that e-readers are not necessarily one-for-one substitutes for books, that mp3s are not complete substitutes for albums. They're important, and bound to become more important as the technology becomes more prevalent, but I think we need to be careful that we don't treat these new mediums as the exact same thing. Because, in the end, they're not. It's a different way of consuming information - whether it's better or worse is up for debate. But as we go through this change, I hope that great art and journalism is not simply relegated to momentary diversions on our fancy new devices.