Friday, December 3, 2010

Are Books Obsolete?


1) Are books obsolete? They are if you do not have any, or don't bother to read. And, if the latter is the case, you may soon become obsolete.

But, what if you do read and own some books; will they soon be obsolete anyway, as new digital readers emerge?

I recently pruned our own shelves, attic, and cellar in anticipation of a move, getting us down to about 1500 books. I do not worry that these might become obsolete for me; they will not. I read often and often read several books at a time. I prune the ones not truly worth keeping and buy annuals to fill in the gaps.

What about Kindle or the ipad? I admire the ipad's overall design and the way that the engineers and designers treated printed text as they digitized it for the screen. It is a beautiful machine. Some books with pictures and many magazines may actually look better on an ipad than on paper.

The Kindle, on the other hand, holds little interest for me. It is physically unappealing, a typically mediocre corporate-design product, focused more on the corporation's needs than the needs of readers and viewers. This machine does not attract the eyes or hands the way that the ipad does so successfully. Kindle, I think, is a one-dimensional fad that will soon pass.

One thing that I can say with some certainty is that our current gadgets, be they ipads, cellphones, laptops, will be obsolete within ten years: maybe five.

How can this be? Think about the gadgets, if any, we were using in 2000 vs. what we use today for communication, music, work, entertainment. Toast. It will be the same with our current machines soon enough.

My books will not be obsolete in ten years, but my phone and computer will be.

Are your books obsolete? Up to you.

2) I've just seen Martin Scorsese's documentary starring Fran Lebowitz called Public Speaking on PBS. I had forgotten what a brilliant and whacky wit she is, possibly because she hasn't written much lately, due to a massive writer's block. Try to see the film if you still can.

She believes that there are too many books being published instead of too few. Agreed. Everyone wants to have their say in print and trade publishers are accommodating every Mo, Larry, and Curly-Sue who has an opinion.

Lebowitz's theory is that this is about self-esteem and that we are a culture obsessed with self esteem, which takes the place of real learning in and out of schools. She feels that there is too much democracy in the culture, where we do not need it, and too little of it in politics and government, where money prevails.

Instead of the old meritocracy for writers, we've dumbed it all down into Reality Publishing with too many books written by people who think we really want to know the texture and color of their undergarments. This is not to say that we do not have many very good writers today (or that we don't appreciate undergarments); we have many, but we could easily survive without half of this stuff making its way onto shelves in a dwindling number of indie bookshops and in Amazon warehouses.

3) Our obsession with self esteem has a cousin, I think: our obsession with being entertained every moment of our day. We find it hard to drive across town without listening to our favorite music, or stand in the checkout line without thumbing-up Beyonce's latest Tweet.

We like what comforts us, which explains the success of genre writing like mysteries and thrillers, from A.C. Doyle to John Le Carre'. What really attracts us is not newness, but sameness. We rely on characters to act in the same ways each time out. Nothing terribly wrong with that.

But, this craving for instant entertainment and sameness makes it harder than ever to to read great long works.

The best books often make us feel discomfort and impatience. They are great precisely because they give us the unexpected and they invoke  mystery. They are not in a hurry to do either.

The Magic Mountain may indeed be magic, but it is also a very, very long trick. Lydia Davis's new Proust translation certainly holds mystery (when is something going to happen!), but it is in the minute details of everyday living (well, okay, Proust's everyday living).

The great books make us wonder in both an imaginative and a mysterious sense . A great book will entertain those who have patience, while challenging the very way we had been seeing the world before we read it. The work's rewards are directly related to our own commitment to its difficult charms. It is very much like falling in love, a wonderful yet perplexing experience for anyone who tries it.

When that kind of wonder-full experience becomes obsolete, just turn out the lights.

Ed Note: US students tied for 16th place for Reading in recent international testing, a bit above the average score. We tied with Poland. Shanghai was first, while 2nd place Korea was not even close.
Have you sent your children a book today? 

1 comment:

Ted McDermott said...

Nice quote in the header today.....