The book, as Nicholas Carr notes in The Shallows, has so far proven extraordinarily resistant to computers and the Net. While book sales and book reading have plateaued, this “long sequence of printed pages assembled between a pair of stiff covers has proven to be a remarkably robust technology for more than half a millennium” (p. 99). But what about now?
- Will our pattern for reading books soon imitate the way we have started reading magazines and newspapers—in short, disconnected snippets?
- Will electronic books become more and more like Web pages with links that push readers away from the book itself?
- Will longer narratives and sustained arguments become standalone pages that can be combined (or not) at will?
- Will books become conversations among readers with reader group discussions going on alongside (or above or below or within) the text itself?
- If reading shifts “from the private page to communal screen,” will social concerns override literary ones for authors (p. 107)?
- If books can be perpetually revised with the press of a button, will authors no longer feel the pressure to achieve perfection or at least their very best?
- Will the multitasking interface of the windows computer environment that begs for interruption turn books into exercises for mental jugglers?
Carr pores over these and other fascinating topics. He notes that futurists of the early nineteenth century predicted the demise of the book because of the flood of newspapers. Later that century many thought Edison’s phonograph would doom the book because people would listen to literature rather than read it. Then it was thought the book couldn’t withstand movies, then radio, then television. What about now?
While books are clearly changing, the jury is out on their ultimate future. Less in doubt, in Carr’s mind, is the future of how we read and think:
In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler. (p. 114)
Although Carr’s discussion of books appears in the middle of his fascinating and essential book, I’ve saved it for last—no doubt partially because of the importance I place on books. Even as a dedicated author, editor and reader of books, however, books are not my ultimate concern. What matters to me are ideas and stories expressed with words that are truthful, powerful, beautiful and redemptive.
We all wait together to see how the Internet will change that.