Thursday, November 19, 2009

Future of Books

While we're on the topic of vanishing books, the Times has a piece about how consumers actually prefer reading "books" on their tiny smartphone screens, where they can do "everything." But it's the doing everything, combined with reading, that defeats the purpose of the book. Multitasking and distraction interfere with immersive reading. And spraying your smartphone with "Smell of Books" won't help.

As a blogger who spends too much time on the Web, I've noticed my own ability to focus on a book has become impaired. My brain is changing. And so is yours.


smartphones: 3, books: 1

The Autumn 2009 issue of the Wilson Quarterly looks at The Future of the Book. Among a series of articles, including one about "Your Brain on the Web," Christine Rosen, senior editor of The New Atlantis: Journal of Technology and Society, offers an excellent essay called "In the Beginning Was the Word." She writes about how abridgment, beginning with Reader's Digest and ending (so far) with blogs and tweets, has contributed to the demise of depth reading--and, ultimately, human empathy.

So, at risk of doing exactly what Rosen warns us against, I'm going to highlight a few quotes from the article, self-consciously abridging it in blog style. Since the article is not available online, I hope it will inspire you to seek out the magazine to read the whole thing.



"Our screen-intensive culture poses three challenges to traditional reading: distraction, consumerism, and attention-seeking behavior."

"We live in a world of continuous partial attention, one that prizes speed and brandishes the false promise of multi-tasking as a solution to our time management challenges. The image-driven world of the screen dominates our attention at the same time that it contributes to a kind of experience pollution that is challenging our ability to engage with the printed word."

"With the purchase of a traditional book, your consumer relationship ends when you walk out of the bookstore. With a wirelessly connected Kindle or iPhone, or your Wi-Fi-enabled computer, you exist in a perpetual state of potential consumerism."

"the transition from print reading to screen reading has increased our reliance on images and led to a form of 'social narcissism.'"

"[The] concern--that a culture that craves the image will eventually find itself mired in solipsism and satisfied by secondhand experiences--has been borne out. We follow the Twitter feeds of protesting Iranians and watch video of Michael Jackson's funeral and feel connected to the rest of the world, even though we lack context for that feeling and don't make much effort to achieve it beyond logging on. The screen offers us the illusion of participation, and this illusion is becoming our preference. As Boorstin observed, 'Every day seeing there and hearing there takes the place of being there.'"

You can read the rest of this essay by buying this issue through the Wilson Quarterly website, or finding it in your local indie bookshop.

19 comments:

Melanie said...

Jeremiah--I really love the photo on the train with the smartphones--truly a great one.

John M said...

These posts on books and electronic devices are very important. Whether people will listen or take the proper actions is up to them. But you're performing a great service by pointing out the brain-warping dangers of our simultaneously ultra-connected and humanly disconnected culture. Keep up the great work.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thank you.

maybe i feel the need to atone, as a producer of daily "experience pollution" myself.

also, one of these days i hope to publish novels, and if they don't come out on paper, well, let's just say that would be a painfully disappointing experience.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

I love paper! But my newest publisher, eXtasy Books, is more into ebooks and will bring out one of mine in March 2010 and also one in 2011. I give them what they pay for. I use their money to buy more books made out of paper and have no intention of getting an ereader. A paper book by Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo and others is more than good enough for me. Shove your ebooks elswhere...

Mick

www.mykoladementiuk.com

Bryan said...

Can I lodge a slightly different complaint about smartphones and social isolation?

It drives me nuts when I approach a street corner and there's a gaggle of people huddled around an iPhone -- or, worse, a drunk and stumbling couple -- trying to read their GPS and figure out where they're going. Why not ask someone and make a human connection rather than blocking the corner or walking while reading the screen?

Lord of the Pants said...

I have caught myself visualizing "ctrl-F" in my mind when scanning a printed page for a particular word or passage. I hate that.

esquared said...

know exactly what you mean...

from an article of last year's Atlantic Monthly magazine

"media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

To the Moon, Alice! said...

Toward Bryan's comment: That reminds me of what I saw yesterday on the train. There were two teenagers sitting near me and instead of talking to each other, they had themselves hooked up to either end of an iPod ear phone. Now I admit I use mp3 players on the train but only when I'm alone (and sometimes while reading a book.) But how the hell can anyone sit with their heads in any device while in company/a hang out with another person?

Jeremiah Moss said...

visualizing Ctrl-F while reading from the page? that's kind of incredible.

on the other side of all this, i do like the idea of having a brain that thinks in an interwebbed, Googly way, making connections, following associations, holding many diverse views simultaneously. i enjoy hustling down the rabbit holes of Google and not knowing where i will end up.

but that tends to be a hyper, buzzy activity, with little to do with deep thought.

if one can lead to the other, if they can intertwine, we might be okay. if not, we'll just end up ceaselessly seeking without gratification or meaning.

Anonymous said...

great thread - and article! - BN

Jeremiah Moss said...

esquared, thanks for sharing the google article. it's right on:

"Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."

Philip said...

For those out there that think that a Kindle or smartphone can replace the experience of a real book, here's an 1999-era "E-Toilet" they can buy

http://www.theonion.com/content/node/29225

Jeremiah Moss said...

"real-time point, click and shit capability"!

Philip said...

Ha! So true, right? I think the e-toilet article is worth it if only to recall the onslaught of Dot-Com Era corporate doublespeak.

It's interesting how closely we can link the unquestioning acceptance and proliferation of these technologies in our lives to the no-questions-asked, full-speed-ahead gentrification of the city itself.

In both cases, precious few of those with the power to change course are asking: just because we can, does it mean we should?

I think almost anyone reading this who's fallen in love at some point in their lives has given or received some special book as a present. Can you picture telling people years from now "Dude, when she surprise-downloaded Catch-22 for me on my iPhone, I knew she was the ONE...!"

Barbara Hanson said...

I think we are approaching the subway very differently, Jeremiah. When I first traveled the city alone, with a couple of 20-cent tokens in my pocked, my mother's admonition rang in my ears: Don't make eye contact. I still don't.

Mr. Nice said...

Literature will always be more about the content than the medium. Books can be cumbersome, especially for a subway commuter. On top of it, I have to keep track of a physical bookmark, tote along a separate dictionary and live without Wikipedia. Kindle is on my Christmas list.

Bowery Boogie said...

@Baha: 2 childhood lessons from my parents, never make eye contact on the subway or take out your wallet on the sidewalk.

Anonymous said...

@bowery boogie: They have subways on Long Island?

Anonymous said...

I cant imagine the children today will not have the experience of hiding under the covers with a flashlight to finish a book. Or walking into the library and feeling overwhelmed by excitement staring at the stacks, thinking they can read everything there in their lifetime.
I would not trade my love of books, which started as a very young child for any cold electronic device. I remember standing in my school library vowing to read every book on one wall at the beginning of third grade. How can you smell the pages and what if the power dies before the end of the book. (if you were to be reading under the covers as mentioned earlier)