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For many people, the start of a new year symbolizes an opportunity for new commitments, especially regarding self-improvement of not only the body, but also the mind. According to a recent Elliptical Reviews survey (3), the goal to read more books is among the top ten New Year’s resolutions, whether “more” means “more” compared to past reading habits or marking a newfound desire for intellectual growth. However, reflecting on the potential obstacles for reaching this goal, the time that could be spent reading often goes to other recreational activities: watching movies or TV, browsing the Internet or playing video games. While literature is not inherently superior to these types of entertainment in the sense of gaining new experiences and knowledge, it may seem like the newer media are replacing books in the stores, technologies and minds for many of the post-Internet generation. This begs the question: Could the fate of digital era books truly be summarized as “out with the old, in with new”?
Passing the Torch
The declining popularity of reading is a notorious modern day debate topic, having countless concerned think pieces and calls to action, such as The Washington Post warning that “The death of reading is threatening the soul” (8). Literary statistics, too, depict a rather gloomy picture: Although the number of books published per US inhabitant has increased threefold since the 1920s (5), the number of non-readers has also tripled between 1978 and 2014 (7). The pessimistic nature of these facts may have theoretical support in political economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” – the ongoing cycle of the old structures, or in this case media, being destroyed as new ones emerge (6). Beyond theory, this process can be seen reflected in culture as well, such as the 1979 hit song “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
In view of this, it seems entirely possible that the decline of books could be tied to the rise of digitally accessible entertainment content, from Netflix series to SoundCloud podcasts. After all, historically the introduction of domestic television dealt a blow to movie theatre revenues, and the invention of the Internet allowed file sharing and piracy to threaten music industry’s livelihood. Still, all of these media continue to coexist today, each with hundreds of millions of daily consumers. Therefore, the fate of literature might not hinge on direct competition with digital entertainment, but rather on enduring the current drop in the popularity of reading and finding opportunities to work together with, not in spite of, technological change.
A Double-Edged Sword
Undeniably, books have not remained unaltered since the days of monk illustrated manuscripts or Gutenberg’s printing press. Just like we are no longer limited to dial-up Internet and silent movies, literature, too, has adapted to the technological advancements. Thus, the appearance of e-books and audiobooks created ways for members of today’s increasingly mobile society to read books while travelling with limited room for baggage, or to listen to them on their way to work. This upgrade from paper to electronic formats allows books to share the key aspect of accessibility, which has ensured the advancement of media like the Spotify music streaming platform.
Nevertheless, it may not be enough for books to catch up to new technological affordances if they might also negatively affect the societal affinity for reading. The immediacy and availability of online entertainment is condemned by many, such as linguist Naomi Baron, as teaching us “to skew the balance away from continuous reading, much less close reading, and toward reading on the prowl” (1). The presence of the “TL;DR” abbreviation (meaning “too long; didn’t read) alongside longer online texts raises concerns for the continued capabilities of text-only books to reach audiences which are technologically discouraged from long, intensive reading practices.
On the Same Wavelength
The issue of the traditional book composition feeling outdated and lacking in comparison to newer media, despite the actual entertainment value of the content, may have a solution in the transformation of literature beyond a strictly textual experience. Conceptualized as remediation (“the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms”) (2), this is reflected in the countless adaptations of books into movies, TV series and other formats which tend to require a different type of mental effort to understand and enjoy. While it is arguable whether this transplantation of content into other media settings would still classify it as literature, quite often remediated books at least attract a wave of new readers. This reveals a futuristic, mutually beneficial relationship between books providing creative content for adaptation and other media effectively serving as advertisements for the source material.
Moreover, the fate of today’s book industry might also be helped by other digital media offering ways to improve the reading community. Social media platforms can lend to literature an interactive dimension it cannot achieve on its own, ranging in shape from Twitter discussions about literary universe theories, to sharing fan art of book series’ characters on Tumblr, to having a fan collective Q&A with authors on Reddit. In this regard, the integration of technology within the book reading experience may seem like a positive turn of events.
Based on the successes of e-books, audiobooks and literary remediation, there does not appear to be an outright battle of technology and literature, where “[w]e’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons” (8). However, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the role of creative and digital evolution in the ways we now read or don’t read, as actor Stephen Fry did with his much-quoted Tweet: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators” (4). In-between the black-and-white views of literary pessimism and optimism lies the acceptance of platforms like video gaming and social media coexisting and often interacting with the content of books. From this perspective, it would appear that books, both paper and electronic, are experiencing not a death, but a rebirth in appearances more suited for today’s technology-driven, culturally diverse society.
1. Baron, N. S. (2015). Words onscreen: The fate of reading in a digital world. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
2. Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3. Committing to the New Year. (2018). Elliptical Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.ellipticalreviews.com/new-years-resolutions/
4. Fry, S. [stephenfry]. (2009, March 11). This is the point. One technology doesn't replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators x [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/stephenfry/status/1312682218?lang=en
5. Kovač, M., Phillips, A., Van der Weel, A., & Wischenbart, R. (2017). Book statistics: What are they good for? Logos, 28(4), 7-17.
6. Schumpeter, J.A. (1962). Chapter VII: The process of creative destruction. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (3rd ed., pp. 81-86). New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
7. Weissmann, J. (2014, January 21). The decline of the American book lover. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-decline-of-the-american-book-lover/283222/
8. Yancey, P. (2017, July 21). The death of reading is threatening the soul. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/07/21/the-death-of-reading-is-threatening-the-soul/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.2af7bff512d4