Saturday, July 30, 2011

It's The End Of The Book As We Know It, And I Feel Fine

A lightly edited version of this appeared in today's The Hindustan Times.

THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE BOOK Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere

THE LATE AMERICAN NOVEL: Writers on the Future of Books 

If you read books on a Kindle, British novelist Penelope Lively recently said, you’re nothing but “a bloodless nerd”. Many of those devoted to the printed word share the same sentiment. For them, the impending demise of the book as we know it is cause for alarm, if not lamentation. What’s often ignored is the distinction between form and content: while we’re attached to the shape, size, feel and aroma of books, what we read are words. The medium, of course, alters the message as well as our experience of receiving it, and this, then, should really be at the heart of any such discussion.

Among the many elegies to Gutenberg, we now have two more volumes: the first, a curated conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere; and the second, a medley of contemporary American writers offering views on their future. The verbose and opinionated Eco and Carriere, however, prove to be somewhat backward looking. Much of the content of This is Not the End of the Book turns out to be ruminations on the books they own, the joys of collecting, the pains of the accelerating speed of change and digressive anecdotes on reading and bibliomania drawn from the world of European letters.

Their pontifications – and ‘pontifications’ is the exact word – can be tedious, sometimes even nonsensical, such as when Eco declaims that “the computer cannot be read in the bath or even lying on your side in bed”. There’s much anachronistic tut-tutting over the changing pace of data storage and accessibility, with a holier-than-thou tone throughout:  “The book is like the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be bettered”. Again, the same confusion between form and content.

In the preface, moderator Jean-Philippe de Tonnac at least asks the right questions:  “What is a book? And what will change if we read onscreen rather than by turning the pages of a physical object?” He goes on to muse: is it a sense of the sacred? An intimacy between reader and author? The feeling of existing in a self-contained world? Such subjects, indeed, are what the Italian semiologist and French screenwriter ought to have spent more time discussing. At one point, Eco even derides the photocopier, and later, Carriere makes awkward philosophical generalisations such as: “Every Hindu has his personal deities. And yet Hindus share a community of belief.” If this is how “two great men discuss our digital future”, as the volume’s subtitle has it, one feels sorry for the digital future.

In comparison, The Late American Novel is a breath of fresh air. This comprises several short pieces by contemporary American authors on their current predicament: some insightful, some uneasily tongue-in-cheek and some simply unsure. Editors Jeff Martin and T. Max Magee point out in their introduction that “the written word’s last big format change turned out to be a pretty big deal, fomenting revolutions and laying the groundwork for modern civil society, the scientific revolution, and modernity itself”. Now, therefore, “we wanted to hear from some of today’s most promising literary voices, to find out if they are optimistic, apathetic, or just scared shitless.” As Rivka Galchen ironically points out in her piece, if people just aren’t reading anymore, there’s a pretty big noise being made about the book’s impending demise.
There’s much ground covered here, from nostalgic memoirs dealing with the pleasures of the book’s physical form to the changing modes of consumption, creation and distribution of narratives. In one of the most insightful pieces, Benjamin Kunkel – founder-editor of the literary magazine n+1– updates Regis Debray’s theory of society moving through the stages of the “logosphere, graphosphere and videosphere” -- that is, the spoken and heard, the written and read and the audio-visual. Kunkel ponders on the coming “digitosphere” and whether the always-on stream of bits and bytes will make literature a subculture, “or, even better, a counter-culture”. (Publishers, of course, share this concern: a recent session at the World E-Reading Congress in London sought to answer the question: Can e-reading win the war against Angry Birds?)

In another piece, though Joe Meno confesses to “moments of wonder” while reading printed books, he asserts, rightly, that  “…throughout the history of narrative arts, storytelling has always adapted to changing forms and technologies, and has managed to not only survive but begin anew each time, introducing a whole other generation to the possibilities of reading.”  Kyle Beachy makes much the same point: “Clearly, the novel is built around the mechanics of the book. But to conflate the two is a mistake both easy and terrible”.

Anders Morton, too, offers a nuanced, hopeful view. We all desire narratives and create stories, he says  (“as opposed to the actual lived experience of unsatisfying fragments, random encounters, and passing glances” ) even it’s just on Twitter. And “if this means we need to redefine the definition of ‘writer’, that’s okay with me”. In a similar vein, there’s a probing, open-minded exchange of e-mails between Jonathan Lethem and David Gates on the appeal of fiction in the age of Facebook.

Nevertheless, one can empathise with Nancy Jo Sales when she points out: “Would my life in books have been the same if they had been coming to me via Kindle or iPad? I don’t think so. There’s something about the physicality of a book, the way it looks and feels and even smells…that makes it a living, breathing companion.” The printed book is a living thing, echoes Joshua Gaylord: “It has a spine”.  For those who fetishize the book as object, Victor LaValle has the right words: “The greatest gift the electronic age could bestow upon the novel is to keep it sacred, not sacrosanct.”

It’s Sonya Chung, though, who strives to look at the present in just the right manner. The pendulum will swing back one day, she writes, but meanwhile, “…whether you are optimistic or pessimistic, hopeful or dispirited, it is clear that our needs, desires, fears, and values are at stake; and what could be more exciting for literature?”  A new age of Modernism could be around the corner, in other words. As that quartet from Athens, Georgia, might well have sung: It’s the end of the book as we know it, and I feel fine.

1 comment:

sabupaul said...

The headline here is much better than the one that appeared in the newspaper. So you're an REM fan?