The Future of the Book

Who’s Afraid of a Big, Bad Screen?

By posted at 7:28 am on January 19, 2009 1

Lately, critics have been swift to announce the death of print culture, and thus pronounce the end of literacy. Even two technology critics whose opinions usually reside on opposite ends of the spectrum – Kevin Kelly of Wired and Christine Rosen of The New Atlantis – agree that culturally, we are now “people of the screen.” True to Kelly’s technocrat leanings, he embraces the screen’s omnipresence in his recent essay in the Screen Issue of The New York Times Magazine. In Kelly’s opinion, the hegemony of the screen will oust the word from its dominance and replace it with the visual image. He contends, “We are now in the middle of the second Gutenberg shift – from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.” Rosen agrees with Kelly, though where he celebrates a new visual literacy, she laments. Rosen’s New Atlantis essay “People of the Screen” admonishes Kelly’s enthusiasm in a previous Times Magazine essay for the possibilities of mashing up and remixing texts (a glorified cut and paste), but she ends by echoing his recent sentiments and committing literacy to its deathbed, “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen-savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information.”

What’s most audacious about their prediction that a screen-based society will stifle literacy, is that they equate a redefinition of form with an end, and in doing so discount the ways that the screen could expand the possibilities of disseminating literature, providing greater access and a more portable form, as well as saving a few trees, to boot. If reading is in decline, then writing is experiencing a resurgence – emails, IMs, and text messages, however inglorious their usual state, show that people are writing prolifically. And the text message, whose condensation would seem a more apt medium for poetry, is now being used to write cell phone novels, which are wildly popular in Japan (an excerpt of one was translated here by Ben last year). There’s no dearth of writers and aspiring writers, either, proven by the increasing number of MFA applicants, who are often willing to pay high fees for instruction, and don’t even mention the millions of blogs, this one included. I have never heard a literary magazine wax nostalgic for the days when they were overwhelmed by submissions. The point is, even if reading long-form narratives or poetry is in decline, writing is robust and print will linger regardless.

Will screen culture redefine literacy? Of course. But does this merit the doomsday proclamations issued by Rosen and Kelly? I think not. Rosen writes of her experience reading Dickens on a Kindle, and the inherent difficulties, including her “restless” eyes that “jumped around,” which is the way many people read on a screen, scanning for nuggets of information in an F-shaped pattern. But is this a reaction to the screen itself or to the material that we most frequently find online? If problems with focus and concentration are related to the characteristics of the screen, then perhaps there are ways to make future versions more reader friendly. Surely, the users of the first generation of personal computers could have made similar arguments about portability if arguing against word processing. But modifications and improvements have made the three-pound laptop a reality. And as for complaints about slower reading, you have to take into account habit and custom, and the ways we are educated. Perhaps it’s impossible for some thirty-five year olds to feel as comfortable with reading text on a screen as young children who are now growing up reading online. I, personally, despised attempting to comprehend and analyze the GRE’s reading comprehension passages online and I still prefer to print out long articles, and I find the heft of a book in my hand pleasurable, but children who grow up with e-books and online reading may think nothing of it. Which is much of Rosen’s issue – that screen fluency will end reading as we know it. Rosen seems more preoccupied with the changing conventions and how this will shape culture than technology hastening the true end of reading. The shift from the book to the digital file is more akin to the shift from the LP to the MP3, and although a shift may not be free of consequence, it’s not the great erosion that Rosen and Kelly presage. And such is the predicament for many types of long-form artistic work: the novel, the film, the album. Digital culture allows for greater plasticity and user interaction, while providing a platform for an unprecedented number of voices. The fear that the background noise will make it more difficult to pinpoint specific voices, and that we will become lost in information a la Oedipa Maas, may be more warranted. If we can agree that the future of reading is onscreen, instead of sullenly balking or calling this the end of literacy, we should consider and plan for the possibilities.





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One Response to “Who’s Afraid of a Big, Bad Screen?”

  1. Fern @ Paperback Traveler
    at 12:34 am on January 20, 2009

    I am so tired of people calling for the death of something or other. Ever since Nietzsche declared that God is dead, people have been rushing around trying to find the next thing to melodramatically declare dead. I say, death to declaring things dead. Long live all things!

    I agree with you, reading will change, but it's not going anywhere.

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