Same as it Ever Was

Posted on November 26, 2010 by psu

I have always really liked the Best American Essays series. For those of you who are not familiar with these books, every year they rope some editor into reading thousands of pieces of non-fiction from various periodicals that specialize in publishing such material. Then they put 20 or 25 of these pieces into a single book and put it out on the shelves so I can buy one and read it on my next long plane trip. The stuff is fantastic. In addition, it saves me from needing to subscribe to all of the magazines find the good stuff.

So this weekend I picked up the 2010 edition of the series at that venerable DC institution KramerBooks. Kramer’s is great because it’s also a pretty good restaurant. So you can buy food and books at the same time. Win! I ordered some fried catfish and opened the book up to the forward. My other favorite literary hobby is reading forwards and introductions. I like the peek into the “real” mind of the writer that they sometimes provide. This time, the subject of the forward was somewhat surprising. The series editor, Robert Atwan, was talking about the iPad, e-readers, and the fate of the printed page in this brave new world of electronic and digital content. In a nice twist, instead of lamenting the loss of his particular beloved physical artifacts, he was worried about how the new media would change the reader. His reasoning goes something like this:

  1. The electronic reader can provide a “reading experience” that is so much richer and more complicated than the standard book.

  2. Therefore, the next generation of “books” will be forced to provide such an experience. Rather than just words, words will be forced to mingle with sound, and video, and instant messaging and social network-driven community content consumption.

  3. Therefore, what will be lost in the future will be the solitary, linear and meticulous reader. Instead, we will be growing a generation of distracted, hyperactive non-linear, network-connected readers who can’t really absorb anything.

Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think Mr. Atwan is misreading the real shift in expectations that comes with digital content. His assumption is that digital content means:

  1. Bite-sized pieces.

  2. Gratuitous interactivity.

  3. An inappropriately enhanced and “richer” media experience.

But I don’t think this is true. Even on the Internet, that cesspool of Youtube and LOLcats, you can find a huge market for copious amounts of well written text only content. Consider my perennial favorite Boston Homer sports writer Bill Simmons. This guy made his entire career solely on the Internet. He also writes in a style that is anything but bite-sized. His columns sometimes have as much textual content as an entire issue of Sports Illustrated. He is not constrained by space because on the web the marginal cost of a thousand words of text is practically nil.

Not only are his columns epically long, his readers keep him accountable for every word. In several interviews he has mentioned how careful he has to be not to get facts and statistics wrong, lest he incur the wrath of millions of posters to fan forums.

Finally, although Simmons does work in other media (he records a podcast a couple of times a week) the work is never mixed into his text columns. His writing is just writing. And it’s linear. And it’s long. He wrote an 800 page book about the NBA for god’s sake.

So, to summarize, we see here that one of the world’s least literary populations: sports fans, are still willing to read a lot of text about their favorite subjects. So I am skeptical of claims that e-books and their various cousins on the Internet are part of an inevitable evolution of books and readers away from text.

I think the real expectations of digital content consumers are much simpler and less work to take advantage of. And here it is:

The point of digital content is to deliver anything that I might want to read, watch, listen to, or interact with instantly and on demand no matter where I am and what I am doing at the time.

Digital books don’t need to be that different than “real” books. What I care about is that if I want to read one, I don’t have to go to a god damned bookstore to get it. I can ask for it and have it wherever I am standing. Right now.

The music industry didn’t understand this and the entire time their business model was being destroyed, they continued to believe that there was value to be had in little silver or black disks packaged in cardboard. The truth was that the kids just wanted their music right now (and unfortunately, for free). The music industry realized this too late, and they are now paying the price for that.

I think the book industry is now going through the same kind of shift. Hopefully the book people understand the real change that is going on around them. It would be a shame not to have anything to read on my iPad in a few years.