The April 25 issue of The Boston Globe includes in its "Ideas" section an article by Edward Tenner entitled "Rebound." It offers a fairly useful accounting of where the "book industry" now stands in terms both of sales and of its encounter with the technologies of the electronic age. It seems to bring good news about the ability of books to withstand the challenge of these technologies, but there are also plenty of reasons, as the article itself reveals, to wonder what the future of serious writing, as opposed to the fate of "the book" as itself a technological device, will really look like.
The good news is that "books have multiplied partly because they have become less and less important as information storage technologies. As our dependence on them has shrunk, their number and variety has increased, and their status has been if anything enhanced by the attention that the Web has showered on them through online bookselling and discussion groups."
Here I think Tenner makes a very important point. To the extent that we rely less on books simply for "information storage," we might actually see them as even more valuable as the means by which writers (artists, thinkers, real journalists--in other words, creative and serious people) explore the possibilities of books as that form that allows for certain kinds of literary work to be carried out. "Books" might come to be seen as the only medium in which this kind of work can be done. (Whether such books continue to be printed on paper in the currently conventional way seems to me a separate, and frankly not very interesting, issue.)
Teller is surely also correct in pointing out that "the Web" has paradoxically enough elevated the status of books by making them more available and enlivening the discussion of books of all kinds. Those of us who maintain lit blogs might want to call Mr. Teller's attention to the contributions this form is making to the consideration of books and writing, but his larger point is cogent enough. And he is right as well in observing that "books [continue to] survive because technology has made it much easier to write and publish them."
But here the picture starts to seem somewhat cloudier. That more books can be produced doesn't mean they should be. Throughout the last decade, Teller asserts, "More and more people came to believe they could publish and flourish. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans would like to write a book. Some of them are aspiring authors of serious fiction and nonfiction, who have never had an easy road and who now exist in greater numbers than ever, thanks in part to the proliferation of academic writing programs."
Now we all know that if 4 out 5 adult Americans published books, in the vast majority of cases their only readers would be close family members and perhaps the next-door neighbor. (If the author promised to reciprocate.) And it seems overwhelmingly likely that the book most such people really want to write is an autobiography or memoir--some kind of "life story." If the number of "life stories" being published continues to increase, this will only lead, in my view, to the ultimate cheapening of the value and integrity of books as the kind of distinctive medium I described above. And should the "proliferation of academic writing programs" continue without some fundamental change in the goals of such programs, they too will finally help to hasten the decline of genuine "creative writing."
All of which leads us to the truly bad news in Tenner's article:
Were the doomsayers needlessly gloomy? Not entirely. There does seem to be less zest for reading among today's college students than there was in the 1960s and early `70s. In the American meritocracy, general culture ranks far behind job-related learning. In Europe and the United States, demand has not kept up with the expansion of new pages, leading to sagging unit sales. . . .
So the increase in the number of books published doesn't really matter that much after all. What good does it do if no one really wants to read them or, more distressinlgy, knows how to read them, anyway? "Job-related learning" can certainly be done without books. The "zest for reading" is only becoming less zesty given the way literature and writing is currently being taught in most colleges and universities. If anything the oversupply of books can only make these problems worse, since even if you wanted to keep up on your reading, who can do so with so much coming over the transom?
I would like to suggest that the healthiest development in American publishing would be not publishing more books but publishing many fewer. This might result in feeding the American appetite for trash, but the loss of enthusiasm for reading is ultimately going to include the "commercial" authors as well. (It might hit them the hardest of all.) Most best-sellers are written to be movies in the first place, and I think that eventually they'll just be movies. In the meantime "the book" might be preserved as a space for serious writing, a mode of "communication" that might find the right audience for its method of communication. If the Book survives as something with a smaller but more dedicated audience, so be it. At least it survives. And might flourish.