What’s The Real Question? — Why We Don’t Read More? Or, Are Books Still Our Best Bet?

Stock photo © BsWei
Stock photo © BsWei

What If Books Just Aren’t It Anymore?

Why don’t we start with the assumption that social media and the web are taking over because people actually enjoy them and go from there?

Baldur Bjarnason
Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason does seem to actually enjoy getting het up about things. And he’s good at it, too.

People generally like people, and having them on tap in a context that you can turn on and off at will just increases the attraction and utility.

What he’s coming to is an important and too-rarely discussed element of the debate about reading today. Quite common among the bookish is the lament that Angry Birds are eating literature’s lunch; that television really has killed the authorial star; that gaming will eventually wipe out all other players; and that we’d better learn to love Zoella and Alfie, because one day they’ll be all we have left in popular culture.

The urgency with which such challenges-from-other-media arguments are made is probably not misplaced.

But it’s not often that someone goes the next step and asks the question that Bjarnason is asking in his piece: Why should people read more books? To wit:

Why isn’t the onus on those who want to promote book reading to show that books are more enjoyable, more useful, and more relevant than social media, apps, and the web?

This is a far more pressing question than most commentators in the field like to concede. But we’ve seen such concerns suppressed before.

A similar level of denial was evident, for example, in the fading of live theater when, during the last century, proponents of people acting things out on cardboard sets under colored lights were incensed if one of us who was doing professional theater criticism dared to utter the phrase “museum art.”

But theater is a museum art. That doesn’t mean that it can’t provide a riveting experience of aesthetic power, not by a very long shot. Sit in the great theater at Epidauros and watch the National Theater of Greece perform the Medea and you’ll come out changed.

And what Bjarnason is doing here is helping us to understand something easier to swallow. Thankfully, we don’t need to name reading a “museum art.” Not if the world of books and the people who enjoy them understand what Bjarnason is saying.

Go back and get that last bit again: the onus is on the people who promote books to prove that they have a place in a world that would rather watch an amateur singing competition on television than understand what Joan Didion knows.

Bjarnason raises the dark flag of possibility that we bookish fans do, in fact, know what handwriting we could one day read on modern walls:

Most people in publishing are beset by the horrifying suspicion that books simply aren’t competitive with other media…They know they’d lose that argument. For your average consumer, books are a worse learning environment, less fun, less rewarding, and less relevant to their day to day lives than almost any other alternative.

How much do we look like those mid-century musical-comedy fans who seemed (then as now) to think that watching countless revivals of The Fantasticks was a positive experience?

‘Why Can’t We Read Anymore?’

Hugh  McGuire
Hugh McGuire

All this started with those cave drawings, of course, but all this started with a piece from Hugh McGuire, the creator of LibriVox and Pressbooks, a highly respected and familiar member of the publishing community. McGuire is also co-editor with Brian O’Leary of the anthology Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto (O’Reilly Media, 2011). It’s McGuire to whom Bjarnason is responding.

And I’m delighted that McGuire will be a member of a fine team of observers in the keynote track of our IDPF Digital Book Conference (#DigiBook15, International Digital Publishing Forum)  with Richard Nash, Molly Barton, and Joe Wikert. The session, part of the programming in which I’ve had a hand, is called “What Can Publishers Do Better To Put Readers First?” The full speakers’ list is here for the conference, set on May 27 and 28 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, opening BookExpo America.

McGuire’s essay, well-received, was titled Why Can’t We Read Anymore? Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains?

What he was on about is the distressing tendency many of us are noticing to have our attention spans — or our ability to focus at will for long period — affected in a bad way, apparently by the short-read, staccato nature of our electronic media, including and maybe most of all, the social ones.

Recounting his inability to get through more than four books per year, McGuire wrote:

I’ve dedicated my life one way or another to books, I believe in them, yet, I wasn’t able to read them.

McGuire spent a good deal of digital ink on dopamine, representative of — perhaps more than expressly responsible for — the sort of pleasure-chasing elements of contemporary electronic media that make them so addictive to us.

He writes of such a thing playing out this way:

  • New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good.

  • The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush…

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine.

812bg8ozwjL._SL1500_You know the hand-wringing about people e-reading on tablets that are vibrating and beeping with so many incoming digital enticements? Same thing: How many times in a single chapter of Josh Weil’s new The Great Glass Sea (Grove, 2014), for example, will you stop and check Twitter? That book is being celebrated this weekend by a reading with the author, winner of the National Book Prize at The Muse and The Marketplace in Boston. How many people in Weil’s audience will check their phones while he’s reading?

Bjarnason sees the dopamine analysis of our distractions as a sideline and stops in his own piece to pronounce it “bullshit,” and jump up and down on it a few times for good measure. I’m not sure its presence helped McGuire to lay out his concern but I feel no compunction to pronounce it “bullshit,” a term I don’t actually enjoy, myself.

But whether the lure of fresh info is behind our trouble with long form, not for nothing did Nicholas Carr write The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011)  in which he looked at how attention spans can be challenged by the mounting trends of digital delivery. The question of digital pressure on our minds has intensified since then.

The author Therese Walsh at Writer Unboxed has been working her way through a busily discussed series of articles on this, here and here and here.

Book A Futurist's ManifestoIf anything, McGuire may have done a bit more about why books are valuable to us than Bjarnason credits him for doing.

Here are some lines from a section of his article that McGuire calls “Why Are Books Important?”

When I think back on my life, I can define a set of books that shaped me — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually…certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world…Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.

Books, in ways that are different to visual art, to music, to radio, to love even, force us to walk through another’s thoughts, one word at a time, over hours and days. We share our minds for that time with the writer’s. There is a slowness, a forced reflection required by the medium that is unique. Books recreate someone else’s thoughts inside our own minds, and maybe it is this one-to-one mapping of someone else’s words, on their own, without external stimuli, that give books their power. Books force us to let someone else’s thoughts inhabit our minds completely.

Books are not just transferrers of knowledge and emotion, but a special kind of tool that flattens one self into another, that enable the trying-on of foreign ideas and emotions.

I like this understanding of the “mind meld” of literary arts, that intimate connection between the author’s and reader’s consciousness.

And McGuire goes on to report a happy bit of progress in learning to change his own exposure to electronic media, with good effect.

But we need to hear what Bjarnason is saying as well, and I can readily thank him for saying it.

‘Don’t Fix People, Fix Books’

Bjarnason gives himself a nice, reel-out of logic to close his piece, and I’ll excerpt a bit of it for you here;

If you think that book reading should be a mainstream activity, one that’s performed by a majority of the population, then you don’t accomplish that by assuming that everybody is broken and needs to be fixed.

Don’t assume that social media has no real world value.

Don’t assume that the web is inherently inferior to books.

Don’t try to guilt people into abandoning media that has enriched their lives and broadened their horizons more than books ever could.

Don’t blame it on a neurochemical…

Fixing book means making them truly diverse. It means making both the people who write books and those who publish them more diverse.

Fixing books means making them more immediate and quicker to publish…

As one commentator has observed, Bjarnason’s most resonant point may be in a call for a diversity that electronic media display far more readily than traditional bookish efforts.

But the ultimate proposition he puts onto the table is one we need to think about, talk about, and hear carefully with open minds:

Why don’t people read more books? Because most books aren’t for them.

If we want people to read more books we need to make books for them. Until publishing does, we in publishing have no right to complain. TC mark

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