Blackwolf the Dragonmaster's Diary of Magecraft

Being a Chronicle of the Inner Secrets of, and Spells of Magick as Wielded by, the Philosopher of the Internet and Unofficial Sorcerer-in-Residence of the City of New York

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Location: New York, New York, United States

As New York's Unofficial Wizard, my mission is to encourage the Mortals of Manhattan to imagine responsibly!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Death of Books? The Pagemaster Responds

I am the Pagemaster, Keeper of the Books and Guardian of the Written Word!

For those of you who don't know me, 17 years ago, 20th Century-Fox and Turner Pictures, with the help of Macaulay Culkin and Christopher Lloyd, made a big-screen, live-action/CGI-animation feature (OK, so it ran 75 minutes; nonetheless, I still thought it was rather terrific!) starring yours truly. Macaulay portrayed young Richard Tyler, a boy so fearful of even his own shadow that he couldn't even dare to so much as buy a box of nails from a local hardware store!

Anyway, I am guest-blogging here in Blackwolf the Dragonmaster's Diary of Magecraft to respond to the rather rude remarks of one Bill Deresiewicz, essayist and critic, concerning the death of the printed book, as presented in the op-ed section of the New York Daily News. Here, then, are his remarks in their entirety, followed, as promised, by my response:

Yesterday morning, like many thousands of Americans, you may have unwrapped a Kindle e-reader. Or perhaps it was a Nook, or an iPad, or a Kobo --- all, like the Kindle, devices that will take reading from the printed page into the digital domain.

Yes, the printed book is dead.

If that isn't universally apparent, that's just because it hasn't hit the floor just yet. Those of us who love books, those of us like me, poor schmuck, who are still dumb enough to even write books --- we're like medieval scribes in the decades after Gutenberg. They probably thought that they could hang on, too.

Physical books still dominate the market, bookstores talk about reinventing themselves, Luddites like me extol the virtues of the printed page, but these are all just signs of an age in transition. Books survive for now because there are still a lot of people around who grew up reading them. 50 years from now, there will hardly be any. Can you really imagine that anyone will still be printing books then, or building special furniture and buildings to store them? The whole idea will seem ridiculous, like hauling water from a well.

Already, we're reaching a tipping point. E-book sales are almost at the billion-dollar mark, projected to triple by 2015. By 2020, according to one expert, electronic sales will represent some 80%-90% of the entire publishing market. Sales of the Kindle may be as high as 8 million units this year. And with Google's launch of its own platform this month, e-books are now available on almost any Web-enabled device.

None of this means that reading itself is going away. But it will change, just as it did after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Reading online means skipping, skimming and surfing, rather than the deep immersion of the printed page. People rarely spend more than a few minutes on a given piece and then they tend to get impatient with anything longer than a few hundred, or at most a couple of thousand, words.

At the same time, because young people refuse to look at anything that isn't on a screen, the new e-readers are introducing books to an entirely new generation that would otherwise never go near them except under extreme educational duress.

The question, however, is what those books are going to look like. Google, to its credit, is keeping it simple: Its downloads will feature nothing but the words. But part of the allure of the other platforms is all their bells and buzzers that they embed within the text: links, multimedia, social networking opportunities. On the iPad, for example, reading competes with music, text messages and a literal carnival of other distractions. The Nook, which was born as a "dedicated" e-reader, is moving into the same direction --- its latest version includes streaming Pandora radio. That's great if you feel the need to listen to, say, Bruce Springsteen, but not if you wanna finally get into the end of Moby Dick.

And so the book becomes yet another Web page, a cacophony of come-ons and temptations. Young people may keep on reading books, but they're going to read them the way they do practically everything else --- on the run.

And if reading changes, so too will writing. For one thing, it's gonna get a whole lot more simplistic. Our sentence structures have already become far less sophisticated since the rise of television. Now, they will become more simple still. Complexity and sophistication can take time to process, and for that reason, they can be lost on the typical skimmer and/or skipper. They also take time to create, and if no one can appreciate them anyway, most writers will find that it usually doesn't pay to take the trouble. So once reading becomes skimming, writing will eventually become jotting. Just look at a typical blog comment: Montaigne's essays, they're not.

When you take the trouble to print something on paper and then bind that something between covers, what you're saying is that it's valuable enough to keep around for a little while. And once books have migrated to the realm of the screens, they will end up being blighted by the evanescence that touches everything else there. The pixels come and go, disposable and weightless. No wonder we never bother to give them their full attention: They simply don't ask for it. And if we won't spend at least more than a couple of minutes on one website, are we really going to force ourselves to sit through an entire book?

That's what worries me the most. Not that we won't create new literary forms, but that we'll no longer be capable of understanding the old ones. We might have every volume ever published at our fingertips, but even if the computer software is there to even access them, the cerebral software --- the human brain --- simply won't be. At least 99% of everything valuable that's ever been written is contained in books. When we lose the ability to comprehend them, we'll find ourslves trapped in a prison of the present instant: ignorant, empty and alone.

Ignorant? Empty? Alone? Now, because, as Keeper of the Books, it is my solemn duty to defend the printed page at all costs, I should like to address Mr. Deresiewicz' harshly written pronunciations on this issue:

Humans, as a rule, will often live to battle their own fears at their own pace; indeed, as I reminded young Richard Tyler: "Had I brought you into my chambers right from the start, you would not have had the courage to confront your own fears." Sadly, we do tend to move faster than the human eye can comprehend; the problem is simply that information is a constant pill, to be viewed as opposed to being swallowed. Yet there are still those for whom the written word, and thus, the physical book, will continue to mean everything, and that is why I, the Pagemaster, have decided to speak out on behalf of the physical book and those that love them.

When, 17 years ago, the movie that bears my illustrious name was released, critics dismissed it as a thinly-veiled, overly-preachy message picture about the world of books. Secretly, however, there are still those out there who take my movie's message on the thrill and power of reading seriously. Facing up to one's fears was just one of the issues addressed by the film; I realize that some of you may not have gotten the idea, but let this be understood: It was Steven Spielberg, oddly enough, who declared that, in his words, "Only a generation of readers can inspire a generation of writers." What Bill Deresiewicz wonders is: can a new generation of writers survive a digital age? Were you to ask one such as I, the answer you would get from me would be YES!

The fear of the death of the printed, physical book may cause others to speculate, that much is certain; indeed, as you read these comments, both Barnes & Noble and Borders, the two major bookstore chains in America today, are fighting not just for their survival, but also for the right to maintain their relevance in a world where modern technology can inspire the future. Needless to say, this old Pagemaster still remembers why books matter, even in a digital age.

And as for complexity and sophistication: let it be known that great art and all that it symbolizes cannot exist without a great artist to nurture it, to safeguard it, and especially to CHERISH it. That is what authors of books do; and I look forward to defending more and more of their kind for aeons to come.....


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