Saturday, June 15, 2013

The death of books?

I love movies about writing.  Whether it’s a movie about short fiction and book clubs (Kicking and Screaming), book-length poems and multi-volume “confessions” (Henry Fool), investigative reporting pieces (Safety Not Guaranteed), the great American novel (Sideways), academic journal articles (Tenure), or even magazine restaurant reviews (The Trip), these writing-themed movies are often smart, witty, engaging, and far more interesting than any summer blockbuster.  But in the newest movie (Wonder Boys) to make my DVD collection, the old, nearly used-up novelist character laments: “Books.  They don’t mean anything.  Not to anybody.  Not anymore.”

In one sense the character’s now thirteen-year-old prediction was accurate, although probably not in the way he meant it.  Books on tape, followed by books on CD, followed by instant access, downloadable audio books, combined with e-books for those who still like to read or don’t have long commutes, have dealt a major body blow to books in their paper form, and probably to the profitability of the publishing industry.  (I still can’t understand why anyone would want to read a book on a “smart phone,” computer, or “tablet” instead of having the physical copy.  How do you write in the margins or dog-ear the pages?  And without physical books, what do you put on your shelves?) 

The character’s prediction was probably accurate in another sense as well.  Today’s world is one of “tweets,” “texts,” and “facebook updates.”  The length of these communications is incredibly short which matches up nicely with our attention spans.  And with limited space, full sentences are out, and sentence fragments are in.  (Further, and more annoyingly, most punctuation is either grossly misused or eliminated completely—unless you count those yellow smiley faces or the multiple end-of-sentence exclamation points that have become commonplace!!!!!)  So who among us can still read an entire book with complete sentences when we’re used to digesting only short, overly simplistic bits and fragments of information? 

Despite this current, technologically-induced state of affairs, I suspect that fiction books are still completely safe.  I don’t know much about fiction.  In the last twenty years, I’ve only read one such book from cover to cover: Matthew Flynn’s Pryme Knumber.  But despite my lack of exposure to fiction, I just don’t see how “tweets,” “texts,” or “facebook updates” will replace, for example, Harry Potter and the Fill in the Blank.  On the other hand, I suspect that non-fiction books are a bit more at risk.  Even in those rare cases when we want more information than a poorly punctuated, three-line paragraph streaming onto our “smart phone,” aren’t we more inclined to hop on the computer and go to a webpage instead of consulting a book?

In any case, even though I’m normally pessimistic—a very defensible and even valuable philosophy, according to this book—I think the character in Wonder Boys overstated the doom and gloom of the situation.  Thirteen years after his prediction, books are still alive.  Yes, even non-fiction books.  In reality, then, this would have been the more accurate assessment: “Books.  More people care less about them.”  And even if books eventually do go away, at least we’ll still have movies about books for a long time to come.

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