Reading the digital future

Few people complained when CDs were made redundant by MP3 files. CDs, like cassettes, were always lacklustre fetish objects compared with vinyl LPs. And, in retrospect, the Discman was a terrible stopgap device between the Walkman and the iPod. It was worth it for the regained shelf space alone to relocate your entire music collection to your hard drive.

Books, at least to these 20th-century eyes, are a different matter. Even if you disregard the sentimental value of books as physical objects, you could argue that they offer an inexpensive, solitary respite from a daily life spent preoccupied with—besieged and distracted by—screens and monitors.

Digital books now threaten this technology-free sanctuary. The e-book has been with us for a few years now, but the gadgets used to read them, until recently, have been largely viewed as esoteric technology reserved for publishing people and nerdy power readers. While it has its partisans, Amazon’s Kindle e-reader looks about as appealing as one of those devices used by diabetics to measure blood-sugar levels.

But now comes Apple’s new iPad. Even if they’ve never used one, the iPad already looks familiar, if outsized, to bazillions of iPhone owners. And those who own an iPhone love the iPhone.

Sadly, what this means is that we should recycle our hardcover novels and our trade and mass-market paperbacks, or sell them to a used bookstore to buy an iPad, and fill our IKEA bookshelves with X-Men figurines, scented candles, and framed pictures of our cats.

Kidding aside, it seems unlikely that all books will be consumed digitally for some time yet, if ever. But many people still consider the e-book to represent another step in the ongoing devaluation of reading in our culture. Not only are there fewer readers, but the idea of a culturally literate person has shifted to include someone who glances at Twitter or skims Wikipedia but never cracks open a book or newspaper.

“To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration”¦[which] is hard to find in huge numbers of people,” novelist Philip Roth lamented to Daily Beast editor Tina Brown last year. “I don’t think the Kindle will make any difference”¦the book can’t compete with the screen.”

In a recent essay titled “Reading in a Digital Age”, published in the magazine The American Scholar, literary critic Sven Birkets builds on Roth’s argument. He suggests that the lack of focus Roth cites is a direct result of the flickering screens that give us instant search-engine results, viral videos, and live news feeds.

“When there is too much information, we graze it lightly, applying focus only where it is most needed,” Birkets writes. “It is not at all surprising that when we step away and try to apply ourselves to the unfragmented text of a book we have trouble.”

It remains to be seen what happens when readers attempt, on a large scale, to consume unfragmented books on devices that encourage skimming. Some, like Roth, might guess that the e-book revolution won’t alter the decline in reading; others, like Birkets, might submit that having easy access to a novel on-screen is an invitation to read it half-assedly.

But what will happen if the age of the e-book forces prose writers to change the way they write? If, as Birkets believes, the digital age has rewired human brains, maybe novelists can adapt and create narratives that will engage with our increasingly fractured consciousnesses.

After all, literature has never existed undisturbed by technology. Movies at least partly accounted for the novel’s weight loss from the sumo-sized proportions of Victorian-era titles to the more svelte dimensions we currently see on bookshelves. Later on, when television displaced the mass-market short story as a routine domestic diversion, the form became more elliptical and indirect, as short fiction moved from glossy magazines to literary journals. And nowadays, the undying residue of personal information found on-line has forced memoirists, who’ve often flavoured the truth with their own fancy, to exaggerate a little more carefully.

Some have incorrectly suggested that the advent of e-mail killed the kind of precisely articulated, deeply felt correspondence once sent by regular mail, when the telephone, long before, was the true culprit. Even with its brevity, shorthand, and irksome emoticons, e-mail has, in fact, spurred a renaissance in written communication—whether letter-writing traditionalists admit it or not.

Similarly, the prose we might witness in the age of the e-book will take forms that could be deemed odious by people who grew up with their noses between fine bindings. In Japan, we’ve already seen keitai novels, specifically written on and for cellphones. A 2008 New York Times article on this emerging, enormously popular subgenre describes them as being “mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels”. The article also cites critics who note their “poor literary quality, [which] would hasten the decline of Japanese literature”.

Maybe e-books will be more bite-size than the novels we see today; maybe they’ll even be more closely plotted, like movies; maybe they’ll use hyperlinks and Web videos in a way that isn’t cringingly, self-consciously “experimental”.

Literary critics will evoke images of Tolstoy and Hemingway spinning in their graves, but the e-book might provoke literature’s next great leap.