I have nothing against books.
But the book is an outmoded means of communicating information. And efforts to update it are hampered because, cuturally, we give undue reverence to the form for the form’s sake. Publish or perish, that’s the highest call of our intellectual elite. But any medium that defines itself as a medium is in trouble: newspapers, broadcast TV, broadcast radio, and books. They are all faced with new and better means of doing what they do without regard to the limitations of any one medium.
The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.
The book industry is meeting in Washington now and there are lots of stories about how depressed publishers are. Keith Kelly in the New York Post reports on gloom at Book Expo:
Publishing database Web site Bowker reported that there were more new book titles sold in Great Britain last year – 206,000 new titles, an increase of 28 percent – than in the United States -172,000 new titles, a decrease of 18 percent.
General adult fiction and children’s books both showed double-digit declines in new titles, Bowker found.
The print media need iTunes, too.
That’s the message — not to mention the hope and the fear — permeating the book bizbiz as it kicked off its annual BookExpo America confabconfab in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Industry vets fretted over how to harness — or at least cope with — the onslaught of new platforms and windows.
“We’re talking about content, not books, and ways to get it out to people,” said Jerome Kramer, editor of trade pub the Book Standard, while moderating a panel on Web 2.0.
Well, yeah. But it’s still limiting to talk about content. It’s knowledge. It’s entertainment. It should be shared and improved and talked about and found in context in whatever way it wants to be and wherever we want it to be.
But we still worship the book as the book — even though we sometimes want to listen to and watch and search and annotate books, when we can, instead… and even though a lot of books, even if they are books, are utter crap. Any episode of The Sopranos is better than half the best-sellers out there. Yet we dismiss TV as the lowest of our culture and we allow our government to burn TV shows but we’d never let them burn books. I’m going to start teaching this fall and I suspect I’ll be pressured into writing a book. I write every day right here and get to learn more than I can learn writing a book. But blogs are, I can tell you, even lower on the scale of academic respect than TV shows and graffiti. (So maybe this is what I should write about in that book.)
We need to get over the book. And then we can reinvent it. That is true of newspapers. It’s true of book publishing as well. The knowledge that is there is, of course, invaluable. That is why we need to find new ways to gather and share and improve and preserve it.
Kevin Kelly just wrote a good and lengthy piece about the fate of the book in the digital age for the NY Times magazine. He concentrated on the technical and legal issues of digitizing books and bringing them the advantages of the web. But I think there’s something more that’s needed if we’re going to reinvent the book. There are business questions aplenty — how writing can be supported in a post-scarcity economy is a question for all forms of media. More than that, though, there are cultural issues. We have to get over the idea of lecture media, of one-way culture. So long as we worship the book as the book with its present limitations, we can’t reinvent it and save the substance of it.
We need to kill the book to save books.
: AND: A few related posts about my personal relationship with books here and here.
: ALSO: Andrew Brown at Comment is Free wonders why badly written books sell well and argues that reading books is, in fact, a unique activity requiring appropriate skill. I quote at length:
The Da Vinci Code really does raises an important and ancient mystery: why do bad books sell better than good ones? …
Not all bad books would sell better if they were better written: if you rewrote The Lord of the Rings so that it did not read like a translation from invented dead languages, a lot of the book’s strange credibility would vanish, though by no means all. Its deeper credibility is non-stylistic and has more to do with the experience of war and loss than anything else.
But there is a class of author where even this kind of explanation breaks down: Dan Brown, Dennis Wheatley, and some other thriller writers like Robert Ludlum fall into this category. They all produce books so aggressively badly written that no virtues of plot or characterisation – even if they existed, which they clearly do not – could make up for the deficiencies of style.
In this case, I think we have to admit that the badness of the prose style is integral to the books’ attraction; if better written, they would sell worse. This explanation requires a special sort of bad writing. It is not vulgarity, not mere inelegance and certainly not lack of refinement: it transcends all these flaws. It requires that every sentence throw up obstacles to comprehension, that every other word be redundant.
To read such books is rather like reading the transcripts of a telephone conversation, except that they contain words and constructions no one could ever use in ordinary speech. They have the redundancy of ordinary speech without any of its naturalness.
I labour the point, but this resemblance to ordinary speech (except for the small matter of being unspeakable) is, I think, the secret of these books’ success. It is not just that they are written by people who can’t, in any interesting sense, write; they are read by people who have not properly learned to read. I don’t mean their taste is uneducated, or that they can’t spell, or that they have trouble with long words, though all those things may be true; I mean that they have not internalised the activity of reading so that it feels natural.
The links between speech and reading and writing are, in a fully literate person, so strong that all three appear to be aspects of the same activity. … To a fully literate person, authors have voices more distinct and personal than most of the people they will ever talk to.
There are clearly millions of people for whom this is not true, and never will be: they have been taught to read in a functional sense, but the whole activity still feels unnatural. The chief characteristic of written language, for them, is that it is an artificial, painful and ineffective way of conveying meaning. All written sentences are, to such people, unspeakable; you would not say them out loud. Just so the style of The Da Vinci Code. …
An interesting argument and I won’t pull out my populist flag to debate the snobbish undercurrent. I think he has a point about style and conversation. I have always been delighted when people tell me that I write like I talk (but in print, they can read at their own speed instead of listen at mine: fast).
I blame authors (and editors and publishers) for bad books. Brown is blaming readers because they keep buying the crap. Not sure I agree with that. In the ’70s, TV was crap because that’s all the networks fed us. In the mid-’80s, when the remote control took over half of couches in the U.S. and the VCR and cable box gave us control over our consumption (though not yet creation) of media, good shows started to be made and they claimed the top of the ratings. TV proved that we do, indeed, have good taste. Critics argued then that we, the masses, could never manage complex shows but, as Steven Johnson demonstrates in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, we can. In the mid-’80s, we saw TV get more complex and better; from Hill St. Blues led to The Sopranos. Learning that lesson is what made me a populist. That is what made me respect the public and the public’s speech online. So I say the jury is still hearing testimony in the trial of books.
I’m waiting for someone to lament that these kids today don’t read. But they read a lot. They may not read books as much and they may read their share of inspipid personal pages, but they also can now find and read information that is more relevant to them and that is recommended by people they trust thanks to the technology of the internet. I think — or, to be more accurate, I hope — that this will lead to more of a true meritocracy of writing. Good writing will rise. Bad writing may still be on the airport newsstand shelves. But then, when you’re braindead on a six-hour flight, sometimes a braindead book is still just what you need.