Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Quo Post Libris?

I finally retrieved my books from storage a few weeks ago. Following the massive renovation of my apartment building last year, which forced me to relocate for a few months, I had to put nearly all of my worldly possessions in storage. The books were the hardest things for me to go without. Call it a product of my misspent youth. I love books. I grew up in a house full of books, of every variety and description. Reading had always been my favorite pastime, my greatest passion. And I prided myself on my personal library, which reflected my interests so closely.

And I have to say, unpacking those boxes and looking at my precious tomes again after so long, I never realized how odd my tastes in literature were. I've got plenty of the classics - Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tolstoy - but I've also got some very obscure ones too. Not exactly rare, but...different. Marcel Proust? I read it just to say I did. Nobody remembers who he was. The complete Leatherstocking Tales? Does anyone realize that Last of the Mohicans was part of a series? And of course my collection of world history and philosophy books. I wonder if anyone cares to know the complete history of the Freemasons, or the life and times of Bartholomew Roberts? And why do I have a copy of Stephen Hawking's book? I read it once and I felt very very dumb...

I guess I like being lost in a book, reading a deep engrossing story. There's a thrill to that, I suppose. A thrill as old as storytelling itself. When the first human stood up at the fireside and told the first story, they kindled a spark that still glows. We just like to hear a good story, for whatever reason.

And now I ponder. Is that spark going to go out soon?

My Father just recently got himself a Kindle. If you can believe that. My Father, the career educator and grumpy Luddite in his old age, got himself a Kindle. Of course for him there were also practical concerns: his personal library has gotten so big that he's simply running out of room. All three of us kids gave him Amazon gift cards, $200 worth...and he burned through it in a month. That's how much this man loves to read. And I must admit the Kindle is a very pretty piece of hardware. It's light, it's easy to use, and it's got a great storage capacity. So pretty is it that my Mother wound up getting one for herself too. And I've been pondering getting one as well. There is the practical concern for me as well - I can't keep buying books forever, after all - and I certainly don't consider myself a Luddite. This does seem to be the way things are heading, and it would be foolish to be left behind.

And yet...

It occurred to me the other day, that we are rapidly moving toward a paperless society, and a consequence of that is that we will one day have a BOOKLESS society. It's probably going to happen in my lifetime. I will live to see the last physical book get published. My God. What a thing to ponder. A world without books. It feels something like staring into an abyss. Such a fundamental change to human society. For nearly two thousand years we have had books. The book is the ultimate symbol of human culture: it is the written word, preserved. It is the idea frozen in time, the story forever told, the only real means we mortals have to achieve a measure of immortality. For so long as an author's work exists, the author lives on in its pages. And of course, the book is the great equalizer. Anyone who can read has the wisdom of the ages at their very fingertips. And now, that's going to end.

Of course I try to both caution and comfort myself, that the end of BOOKS does not mean the end of LITERATURE. The phasing out of physical books will not bring about the end of writing and reading any more than books themselves did when they replaced scrolls or papyrus. It's just the progress of time, a medium taking a new form. There will still be The Written Word, writers to write it and readers to read it.

But what will they write? And what will we read? That's a thing that concerns me. As the medium for delivering The Written Word changes, so does the subject matter it can embrace. Books replaced scrolls for many reasons, not the least of which was durability. Sheets bound together with a hard cover travel better and last longer than a bunch of loose rolled papers. And with that durability came a degree of artistic freedom: writers could write longer books now, secure in the knowledge that the pages would stay together and would last a good while. They could tell more complex stories, knowing they would have their readers' attention longer. The only limit was physical: just how big a book they could bind...and how heavy a book readers were willing to lug around.

In this new medium, in this world of e-books, that physical limit is gone. There is no limit to how long a book a writer can write, or a reader can carry, since an e-reader is just so light. And since there is no physical book for a publishing company to produce, the costs are negligible. The only limits are the writer's imagination, and the reader's attention span...and well, that's kind of a persistent problem in the modern world, isn't it? When the time comes that stories are being written exclusively for the virtual, what form will they take? What will their subject matter be? How many pages long (assuming the primitive concept of "pages" is still even considered)? Will a reader still be able to lose themselves in an engrossing tale of fantastic adventures and well-drawn characters? Or will literature de-volve into just another App for your smart phone?

There's also the economic model to ponder. I've spoken before about my dismay with how music and video is being marketed in this virtual age, and I worry that the same fate will befall books. I know I said earlier that I don't consider myself a Luddite, but maybe that's more of a situational than general statement. Because I've discovered that I am a Luddite when it comes to books. A book is a physical object. I buy it at a bookstore, I own it. It sits on my shelf. I take it down, I read it, I put it back up. I lend it to a friend. I get funny stares from my girlfriend...but that's not important right now. I fear, with books transforming from physical objects to virtual ones, that the same fate will await them. The loss of the sense of "owning" a book. I find alarming the idea that I can buy a book, but I don't own it. That it doesn't even exist as a file on my computer; it's somewhere in the ether, on some corporation-managed database that I can access for a price. Were I more conspiracy-minded, I would point out the inherent potential for abuse in that system. I would note that a consumer is not purchasing an item under this system - not even a virtual item - but rather the privilege of viewing said item at will. A privilege, I would further note, that could be revoked by the corporation that owned it at any time (such a thing HAS happened in the history of the Kindle, actually). I would then go on to point out that a corporation doing business this way could conceivably hold a book for ransom, never making it available to the viewing public. Could conceivably, in broad Orwellian strokes, control what material readers are allowed to read, banning books on a scale and with an efficiency that would make a prissy small-town schoolmarm's head spin. Could conceivably even corner the market on LITERACY ITSELF.

I would say such things were I more conspiracy-minded, of course. As it is, I do worry about the potential commoditization of literacy. After all, you need to have an e-reader of some kind to read e-books. Even if the e-books themselves are cheap, or even free, you need something to read them on. And not everyone has the $150 or so to plunk down on a device. And if you don't have the money, what then? In this future world where there are no physical books, what do you do if you want to read? In the days of books, you could go to a library and borrow one. What model could replace that? There needs to be one, after all; it's one of the pillars of a free society that everyone has access to information.

And what does this mean for the books that already exist? For hundreds of years, owning a personal library was more than just a hobby. It was a point of pride. It was symbolic, a physical declaration of a love of literature. Owning books said to the world: "I am an intelligent and cultured person." That will all change when the last book is published. Owning a personal library may instead mean: "I am too poor and/or stupid to get an e-reader." I really hope that doesn't happen. But then, I hope for a lot of things in this new age that is dawning around me.

In the meantime, I will read my books. Until someone tells me I can't.