Writing, books and the future of reading - Part 1 of a long essay
Human culture today is adapting and re-adapting to the complicated changes engendered by the utter connectedness wrought mainly by the internet and the world wide web in the 21st century.
Where we are today is the summation of everything that has gone before us. Human culture is a complex, recursive machinery, an ecology as complex as that of the natural world (and yes, it is equally possible that we will destroy our culture even as we are so close to having destroyed our planet!)
We are so enmeshed within our immediate reality we often forget how short a time we humans have been writing, shorter still since we invented the book as the near perfect mechanism for containerization and transmission of knowledge between human beings. The year 1455 marks the beginning of the Era of the Printed Book. We have no such date for the inauguration for the Era of the Electronic Book – yet – but it is certainly coming soon.
The massive explosion of shared knowledge and experience that began with the distribution of printed books to ever increasing numbers of people has accelerated as technology itself has driven us forward (often without regard to downstream costs such as the destruction of natural forests for the creation of paper, pollution of our rivers by poisonous ink residues, the terrible ecological cost of papermaking itself, as well as the increasingly painful environmental costs of transportation as books are shipped to market and back in the commodity economy).
Clearly, the establishment of a poplar book culture and the transmission of knowledge and experience, the growth and expansion of writing based culture of ideas, has always been inevitably entwined with commerce and technology. Books are a great and powerful force for democracy, ideas and knowledge (thus they are always banned or controlled by dictators, who are always threatened by the free flow of ideas through the written word).
At the same time, books have always been created and sold according to commercial principles, thus in most of the world today, capitalism and mass consumer culture. Books are commodities after all, differing from shoes, no doubt, by their essential nature and deeper values, but subject nonetheless to all the economic forces, good and bad, that affect commerce and culture in an essentially one dimensional economic model.
(By this I do not indict only capitalism – neither does socialism nor any other existing economic model take into account the true economic underpinnings of our society, i.e. the costs of natural resources and their depletion).
So we experience a constant contradiction of the market society. Today more books are published annually than ever before, yet we see suddenly and perhaps not coincidentally, that overall book sales are either flat or declining. In the US and in other developed economies new patterns of book sales and distribution are emerging – we live in the era of the blockbuster at the head of the chart of sales followed by a very short “body” of books that sell less well and then an extremely “long tail” of millions of book titles that sell each in tiny quantities but in the aggregate in very large numbers — see Chris Anderson’s new book and website “The Long Tail” for a clear and explicit explanation of this phenomenon.
As with all cultural products (music CDs, film and video DVDs, video games, etc.) traditional real world retail book markets have narrowed choices in the blockbuster economy, shortening the window of opportunity available for a newly published book to be seen on shelves, in competition with thousands of other book titles all seeking the limited mindshare of the busy consumer.
This gives rise to several underlying questions:
- Who chooses what we are allowed or enabled to read?
- What processes affect availability of books and ideas?
- Is the commercial book business successful in filtering out the “bad” and promoting the “best” of writing?
- Similarly, how do economics that underpin the scholarly and supposedly noncommercial publishing sector affect their processes?
- (and there are many who question even more basically the hierarchical notion of ideas that is inherent in almost all contemporary literary culture).
Meanwhile, the rise of the internet and the world wide web has already begun to significantly alter the way ideas are transmitted and shared in our modern society. For traditionally printed books, the internet creates the opportunity for the millions of books, commercial and otherwise, that lie within the “long tail” to become available (although this effect plainly has even greater power for digital products where the cost of production is powerfully reduced – but more on that later). We have Amazon for new books, ABEbooks, Alibris and Ebay for used books.
Almost no book cannot be found online. For a reader, there has been no better time to search for and find books than today - although it is still clear that this abundance benefits only those with tools to search for them and a pre-existing knowledge of books and literature – for most readers this “over” abundance of books may in fact mean that readers actually recognize even fewer “real” choices in the marketplace of books. And while the market for books will continue to evolve and change (not always in ways we will like or enjoy or feel is good for writing, writers and readers), often based on market forces we may not be able to envision, it is in digital technology that we have seen and will continue to see the greatest impact on our culture and society.