Nary a word about the real problems authors face…

Punditry was something quite removed from my work life and home life. I avoid the detritus that passes for political analysis in the United States, choosing instead to focus on long form articles in The Atlantic, the NYT Magazine, and The New Yorker. I am surprised at one “holy war” (*nix vs. Win vs. Mac style) that has cropped up regarding ereaders.

Emma Silver is one of the latest to defend paper books against in silico texts. My acquaintance, Chris Meadows, has written a response to it; these two provide a snapshot of the types of arguments slung by both sides.

Generally, most partisans talk up the virtues of either paper or e-books. That is, they defend the form used by readers to engage authors.

My problem with these arguments is that neither side focus on the real issue. Reading is not a competition between old-school curmudgeons and bleeding-edge tech heads. Reading is being assaulted by demands on our attention by video games, movies, television, music, and time spent with friends and families. Whether one goes to a concert, a theater, sits on a couch, in a bar, or use the Internet is besides the point. Again, it is not the how one obtains entertainment that matters, only that, with the limited time we have, we seek other types of entertainment.

In this context, I do not see e-readers (whether it be Kindle, Nook, or a software reader on an iPhone/Android phone/netbook/PDA) competing against paper. The e-readers are competing against the devices people use to listen to music and watch movies on the go. That is why I think it is in every book lovers interest to promote long-form reading, and to defend this form from subversion.

No one can predict how devices like the Kindle will affect the novel and historical scholarship, two types of writing I would classify as most endangered. There will always be a demand for light fiction. There will always be people who seek out information and political interpretation from sources with whom they already agree with. There will always be a demand for hack and slash biographies providing salacious drug and sex habits of the rich and famous.

Novels and histories require an immense amount of attention. I can see that histories will become more “multimedia” in the future. Histories already are: photographic plates and maps are generally included, along with charts, even in paper versions. As the recent future recedes, we will be able to include more news and sounds. And why is this a bad thing? For instance, why wouldn’t we want to hear Churchill speak? He was a brilliant writer and a speaker; how wonderful would it be if a discussion of his service during World War II also provided aural examples of his rousing speeches to raise British morale?

The problem with anti-technology screeds is that they ignore the proscriptive phase of the argument. The solution will never be, let us ignore the device. It is already too late: the devices are too popular. I see the Kindle becoming the paperbacks of the ebook world: it cannot not yet do video. The iPad and Android tablets will drive ebook development, not the Nook or the Kindle. These will provide the basic platform for how texts are presented to the public.

And there is a real fear here that long-form reading will be lost, since it is so attention-intensive. The defense of reading will be successful only if we can persuade youth to turn to long form (paper and electronic) books when they desire knowledge and thoughtful analysis. That is where we all need to focus our efforts; to teach the young that, for some things, they need to sit, read, and think. We need to increase exposure of historians who write with brio and panache. We need to convince future readers that long form books are still relevant, providing the best method of compressing knowledge and complex ideas (as opposed to the fact and information based content stored in databases and across the Internet.) If an e-reader is how the youth today will engage with long texts, then we need to do more to insert ourselves into the processes by which books and their presentation is brought to the public. The paper versus electronic format as a diversion. We cannot afford to lose to the perception that long books belong with the dinosaurs.


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