Books special: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age? (from "The Independent")

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Books special: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?

Is the paper-and-ink book heading the way of the papyrus scroll? Can serious literature survive in the brave new world of web downloads, e-books and ever-shortening attention spans? John Walsh introduces our special section

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Linda Brownlee

John Walsh says: "The callowness of the e-book makes you weep"

 Look at this chap sitting outside the Caffè Uno at Paddington station. He is reading For Whom the Bell Tolls with slightly exaggerated attention. He has a Uniball pen close to hand, for making shrewd marginal comments. He holds the book up before his face, and his chin juts slightly, as if the fall of Hemingway's lapidary prose were giving him some caffeine boost of vicarious heroism. Behold, his whole posture seems to say, at least someone around here has a brain.

Check out the woman on the Tube reading Sadie Jones's 1940s-set The Outcast. She sits quite still and unself-conscious, lost in the narrative, her spine upright as a schoolmarm's, her head bowed, her hands cradling the book on her lap, unintentionally mirroring the famous 1955 picture of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. And she is reading the hardback version of Ms Jones's novel. That puts her in a minuscule percentage of British people prepared to shell out £17.99 for a new cloth-bound book, rather than wait for the paperback. But can it be that all these readers – the coffee-shop man, the Tube schoolmarm, Marilyn Monroe – represent a doomed species? Has the actual business of reading a book, of digesting a whole text of 70,000 words or more, become too much for the human race?

A transatlantic debate is currently raging about whether a decade of staring at computer screens, sending emails and text messages, and having our research needs serviced instantly by Google and Wikipedia, has taken a terrible toll on our attention, until our brains have been reconfigurated and can no longer adjust the tempo of our mental word-processing to let us read a book all the way through.

An important contribution to the debate was Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making us Stupid?", in which he reports that he can no longer connect with long articles or books the way he used to; the intensity of focus and concentration that used to see him "immersed" in connecting sentences has dissipated. And the villain to whom blame can be attributed is the internet.

"As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s," writes Carr, "media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

Carr quotes a research programme that monitored the behaviour of researchers visiting information sources. Most of the researchers, it found, hopped incontinently from site to site, never staying longer than a few paragraphs, apparently unable to sustain interest in one text. The report's authors coined a splendid phrase: "...there are signs that new forms of 'reading' are emerging, as users 'power browse' horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts, going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense."

Power browsing! But what if our loss of focus in sustained reading is more than mere impatience with accessing information? It seems that we may be losing the capacity of "settling into" a book, of immersing ourselves in a plot or – more importantly – in the stream of somebody else's thoughts, in a way that readers (and writers) once took for granted.

In the days of the Enlightenment, when few books were published and people read for amusement in their leisure hours, the speed of thought, as expressed in books, could afford to be slow, proceeding from point to point in Augustanly balanced steps. Victorian prose substituted orotundity for harmony: readers would settle in for long evenings letting Barchester Towers or Our Mutual Friend wash over them. This was the period when, say, William Gladstone could tell friends, with every expectation of empathy, that he had stayed up all night to read The Woman in White.

In this century, 150 years later, it seems that our attention span has shortened alarmingly. The average-length novel is too much of a stretch for the time-challenged, multi-tasking, BlackBerry-prodding "entertainment consumer" to contemplate reading, let alone the 700-page biography of VS Naipaul or Edith Wharton. Not because of the size of books, but because of the thought processes they contain.

In 1994, an American academic called Sven Birkerts published a seminal study, "The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age". Before plunging into the page vs screen debate, he recalled his experience of teaching a course on "the American short story" to a class of undergraduates. They tackled Henry James's story "Brooksmith", and hated it. Was it, asked Birkerts, the language, the style, the syntax? All of those, said the students. It turned out they were defeated by everything that James was trying to communicate. The narrative river of thoughts wasn't one on which they could sail. The subtle moral distinctions between characters, the importance of their choices in the society through which they moved – it wasn't just that the students found such things old-fashioned; they couldn't grasp them at all.

Birkerts found that, as watchers of TV and videos, "they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed 'pretentious'; they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and they were put off by an ironic tone, because it flaunted superiority and made them feel they were missing something." It dawned on Birkerts that a whole generation of young American readers were becoming gradually decoupled from the whole culture of the written word.

Are we similarly affected, in Britain, in the early 21st century? It seems we are. We haven't enough time to read as we used to. We have less and less inclination to tackle the kind of "classics" (Don Quixote, Bleak House, Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time) that teenage readers once confidently approached. We'd love to be au courant with the modern novel, but we feel suspicious of the extravagant claims made by reviewers and prize judges: does Joseph O'Neill's Netherland really "deserve to be ranked with the best of Updike and Fitzgerald" (The Observer)? Was Stef Penney's first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, which won the Costa Book of the Year, really the finest book in any category to be published in 2006?

And we buy fewer and fewer works of serious fiction. Twenty-five years ago, when the Amis-Barnes-Rushdie generation was getting under way, readers seemed to have no problem ' being steered towards experimental, inward-looking, linguistically challenging fiction. Flaubert's Parrot sold well, despite its metafictional games with biography, as did Amis's Money, despite its torrentially exhausting Amer-English prose style. Graham Swift's Waterland, now on school English syllabuses, flew out of bookshops in its Picador paperback livery, as did One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight's Children.

Now, many serious writers complain, challenging fiction doesn't appeal; "difficult" novels don't sell. Adam Mars-Jones's massive, and beautifully-written novel Pilcrow, published earlier this year, sold only a few hundred copies, and there have been several similar casualties. Although, traditionally, every Booker winner invariably becomes a world bestseller, the 2008 winner, Anne Enright's The Gathering, made the briefest appearance in the top 10 before disappearing. It had a narrative of sorts, but was broken-backed in structure and its strength was the narrator's wry, funny, piss-taking tone – exactly the kind of thing that Prof Birkerts' students hated in Henry James.

To sell now, books evidently need to be big on plot and incident, short on interior monologue – the sort of titles that the Richard & Judy Book Club strenuously promotes. "Most literary programmes, which are on late at night and concerned with 'literature', intimidate lots of people," said Judy Finnegan last year. "For some, that a book has been Booker-nominated is actually a turn-off." Can this, then, be the future of reading: an increasing number of low-brow, plot-driven works will flood the market, consigning works of literary merit to a watery grave, while the low-brows vie with each other for the attention of readers so badly affected by the moving stream of internet info-processing, that they can no longer focus their attention for longer than a few pages?

It seems oddly coincidental that the e-book is coming into our reading lives around now. With its hand-tooled leather binding, its don't-be-scared page dimensions (two-thirds the size of a standard paperback), its flexible typeface and typesize formats, and the astounding capacity of its memory (it can store up to 160 standard-size titles), it is user-friendly, glossy, rather pretty in its ingénue novelty. But its callowness makes you weep.

The instructions tell you, "One battery charge is equal to 6,800 page turns (that's enough to read War and Peace five times over on a single charge!)" Yeah, right. But it's not going to happen on the Sony Reader. Nobody is ever going to read Tolstoy on this fatuous device. It's an electronic simulation of a page, but it'll never convince you it's a book, to be read by your sentient eyes and brain. It doesn't have the solidity, the pages, the tactile companionship of a book. You'll never know where you are in the story, or how much of it is left. You won't have the cover artwork, to steal inside your head and become a lifelong reminder of the book it encased.

And you can't turn the pages. I spent half an hour reading Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the first book to be installed) with my fingers itching to turn a page; "turn" one electronically, and the screen goes blank before the next page is displayed. It's a nasty moment, the screen going blank and interrupting your train of thought; but it's a good metaphor for the blankness to which our minds are tending, as we gradually lose the ability to interpret the old world of sequential thoughts in the new blizzard of information retrieval.




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