A few weeks ago Maud Newton and Sven Birkerts were scheduled to speak at Pitt about The Future of the Book. Then snow happened and things got postponed.
However, this did not stop us students in Cathy Day’s workshop from reading selections of Birkerts The Gutenberg Elegies and watching the panel that Maud moderated about “Literature in a Digital Age.”
I am of two minds about this whole digitization of the book thing. Part of me reacts with a visceral sort of disgust. Or I guess several parts of me. One part is just traditional about things–and this inevitably affects other parts of me. Such as the part of me that already spends too many hours looking at computers both out of necessity and addiction to social networking sites, and needs a break from screens. And of course, there’s the part of me that simply loves books: in my hands, in bookstores, on bookshelves. I love the thing-ness of them. I love owning them. Every time another row fills up on a bookshelf, it gives me pleasure. I even love books about books, like Inkheart and The Book Thief.
At the same time I don’t think all books are created equal. It is the content that determines the value. They are not some mystical entity to be worshiped. That part of me doesn’t freak out about books becoming digital. A more reasonable part that says “wait and see,” that tells me not to get riled up. Not only wait and see if digitization is for better or for worse, but if it really will become the way people read fiction. One of my favorite authors once said that as soon as he heard that an innovation was “here to stay,” he knew it wouldn’t be around that long. I don’t know if that’s the case for ebooks, but the principle makes sense to me. Both those who defend and demonize ebooks start sounding too much like prophets.
Either way, I don’t believe that the nature of narrative, of story, changes according to the medium. Perhaps the delivery is affected, similarly to the changes that occur between printed and oral storytelling; but it remains the same art. And when I think of books, I guess that’s what I think of—the ones that hold stories, as opposed to the ones that store information.
In his Elegies Birkerts argues that the way we receive information changes our experience, and I do agree with this. I’ve always had very little patience when reading fiction on a screen. I start skimming, I get bored, I can’t sink in and take pleasure in it. Maybe this is just me, but there is a different feel to it. But I don’t think that fiction itself changes much when translated into a digital form. Last week I went to the panel Joel Lovell organized, and the future of reading was discussed, along with all the different possibilities that digitization opened up. One of the opinions given was that while nonfiction (magazines, newspapers, and other forms) would change, fiction (especially the novel) would not.
In the panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Dwight Garner stated that even if fancy extras are added to fiction in digitized form, real readers will push past all the extras, will ignore them and actually read. This makes sense to me. It reminds me of the interviews with the author you sometimes find in the backs of books, especially young adult fiction; they are not the story, not what stays with us. They are not the experience.
I can see literary journals going digital, short stories being published online. And I can see the market for ebooks growing. But I honestly don’t think that the novel in book form will become outdated. Digital reading is about convenience. We want convenience when finding information, reading the news. And it’s convenient to be able to take several books on a single device when you vacation or commute or whatever.
But people read fiction to relax, to receive pleasure, to experience something. It isn’t about convenience. And I think that, aside from the novelty (which provides a different sort of pleasure), reading novels on a Kindle or and iPad won’t fit that need—at least not for many people; not the way books do. We are not just walking brains. We have eyes that need to rest from screens; we have fingers that touch things. We’re material creatures, and things in their thingness matter, because they speak to our materiality.
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