Crack-crazed butterflies in rampant botanical garden

The future of the book

“Meet Nelson, Coupland, and Alice — the faces of tomorrow’s book. Watch global design and innovation consultancy IDEO’s vision for the future of the book. What new experiences might be created by linking diverse discussions, what additional value could be created by connected readers to one another, and what innovative ways we might use to tell our favorite stories and build community around books?”

1. Alice. To say I resemble a Ludditic old fart is too harsh, but I fear the “Alice”-type wave of the future will help to destroy both valuable reading habits and the commercial prospects for quality writing and publishing.

Okay, okay. I know. We’ve had thousands of years of whingeing ninnies who oppose technological innovation in information delivery. The doomsters see crisis at every turn. (Have a look at Neil Postman’s excellentTechnopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, e.g., especially Chapter Four.) More than 2,600 years ago, e.g., Socrates warned that the written word itself would destroy our native memories. Yadda-yadda, eh? But the move from a oral to a written culture went on to bring great benefits.

Then, about 570 years ago, many considered the printing press socially and politically subversive. To some extent, these worries were justified. But few today would deny the manifest proven advantages of the written word and popularly accessible printed information.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we can assume that change and novelty are in themselves somehow inevitably valuable. (Though many in our modern culture do. Our consumerist societies, it can be suggested, in fact depend on encouraging this already endemic attitude.) Biological evolution, e.g., is full of species that innovated themselves right out of luck. Brand-new features that seemed like a darned good idea in one context proved fatal to the whole species in another. Ask the dodo about the survival value of sauntering around the place all plump and congenial after Homo sapiens hits the beach. There’s no evidence that mutation and natural selection leads inevitably to more successful organisms. And there’s no more evidence that cultural and technological innovation necessarily means progress.

What are we left with when the novelty value of Alice wears off? My own attention already gets blown to bits by the demands of cell phone, e-mail, Facebook, a blog, this, that and the other. (See? The words elude me; multi-tasking and pathological levels of distraction have eaten my mind.) So I need books that have me flitting from place to place like a crack-crazed butterfly in some insanely efflorescent garden? I don’t think so.

2. Coupland. Then we’re given the genial, let’s-all-read-stuff-we-like-together-and-thereby-narrow-the-range-of-options Coupland literary current. (Can your e-book reader handle hypenated phrases of such grandeur?) This is something that may well carry us in directions opposite to those it promises.

Like a lot of other people, I’m finding myself swamped with things I feel I ought to read. I have a Kindle that already holds enough to keep me reading long after I’m dead of old age. I stand in danger of being crushed, here in my apartment, by avalanches of paper books that need reading or re-reading. Good friends lend me, as good friends will, new books every time they see me, no matter how much I tell them it may be my next turn on the Wheel before I get to read them. A long and growing list of favorite Internet sites tempt me daily with fascinating books, essays, articles and blogs, every one of these linked to many other interesting books, articles, videos and blogs. In short, I’m drowning in information, or at least in guilt at the ocean of information I feel I should somehow deal with.

Then along comes Coupland, offering to rationalize this maelstrom for me. Right. Now I can slip into reading groups where colleagues, fellow professionals, and social reading clubs list even more things I should really read or I’m not playing the requisite professional or social games. Whoa. Once again, virtual magic is just making my life better.

And I suspect this approach conceals a nasty authoritarian element. Too often we’ll feel compelled to at least skim or pretend to have read a lot of these booklists that precipitate around our work and and social lives, none of which we’ll have time for any more because we’re constantly browsing the magic digital mountain hoping to become truly engaged with some part of it, or else retreating into videos and games on our iPads, trying to dull the squirrely hysteria at all the informational goodies that need stashing.

3. Nelson. Judging by the comments on the site, there’s more tolerance for this approach, which could be useful for students and other researchers.

Whatever. Unless they’re already finanically secure one way or the other, writers are already doomed. For one thing, it’s being said, they need “platforms”—credible gangs of fans visiting their websites and blogs—or agents and publishers aren’t going to take them seriously. So there’s no time to write anyway, forget the issue of whether there’ll be any readers around to appreciate it.

I’m refraining from sauntering around looking plump and congenial, and I’m trying to discipline myself when it comes to the digital universe, but the barbarians are clearly at the gate, big time. And what am I doing? I’m sitting here, entirely distracted from the hard business of writing, wasting valuable time composing a post about being distracted.

Postmodern irony, or what? Sara claims it’s just bone-headedness.

Rx for the distracted writer.

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