Thursday, May 21, 2020


“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
--Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The local library is closed.  So are all the book stores.  You cant even get a magazine at the oil change joint or the doctor's office these days.  Essentially, books have been banned, unless you already owned them.  You can get e-books no problem, libraries will still loan them out.  You can still buy books off online sites and have them shipped to you, as if somehow they are sanitized by the mail, or something.

As an author who, while not exactly making a living at books, writes for money, this is deeply disturbing.  Over the years, books and reading have declined in popularity for a variety of reasons.  People are less interested in the time and concentration it takes to read for entertainment.  

Younger people especially suffer from a sort of illiteracy in which long-form text (such as what you're reading right now) is challenging.  They were raised on images and small, short bursts of printing.  Texting, social media, etc.  TL;DR -- too long, didn't read.  It takes skill and practice to become comfortable with reading longer form text.  Even older people are finding this to be true, the more they read short form text and the less they read anything else.

These two things combine painfully into a situation where people are just reading less and less.  Books don't sell nearly as well as they used to.  Some top sellers still are making big numbers but as I wrote about a while back, people aren't reading these books.  They're just buying them to own them, show them off, and be seen with them as part of a fashion package.

Designers in homes are packing shelves with books for the visual effect, but the latest trend is to turn them backward so the spine isn't facing out.  They aren't there to be read or identified, the paper is "neutral" in color and tone, so you don't have to worry about the colors and designs on the spine.  They are there to look interesting and seem literate, without actually reading any of them.

Even long, established, once-respected magazines such as Atlantic are struggling, firing many people.  There are a lot of reasons for this beyond literacy, but the end result is the same: people are simply not surrounded by print and reading the way they once were.  Their nose is in the phone all the time anyway.

The phone is instant, varied, entertaining, requires little effort or thought.  It feeds you what you want rather than having to tease it out or find it.  It gives you want you want immediately, with shiny colors and moving things.  You can be pretty immature and enjoy the phone, because it delivers things to you at a child's level of access.

That doesn't make the smartphone or any other of the devices we use and enjoy bad, everything is good in its place.  After all, when book printing became common and cheaper, people were worried that the art of telling stories by word of mouth and passing down information verbally would suffer and people were losing their ability to remember and hold to truths personally.  There's a drawback in everything. 

But it does make the new tech very compelling and while not exactly addictive, often the first thing people reach for and stay with all waking hours.  Putting that down to read means not picking it back up to look up a word.  Or check a social media account.  Or text someone.  Or answer that text (and boy do people get mad if you don't respond quickly).

In the end, this is very upsetting, frustrating, even frightening for me as an author.  This is like being a painter and watching people lock away paintings and stop buying them.  This isn't so much being replaced by a better technology as it is just being thrown into the trash for being too tough and time consuming to enjoy.

I fear for a future without books, or with books only enjoyed by a very small number of people.  Even introductory reading devices such as comic books are plummeting in sales and popularity.  This hits me very directly both in an economic sense and a personal one.  And its not good for any of us.  And at some level I fear that its deliberate.


vanderleun said...

1) The Atlantic WAS a great mag for many years but that has not been so for many years. These days it's a Trump hating org that publishes horseshit and has been paid for by some sugar daddy communist billionaire for years. They can't die quickly enough for me.

2 The only good bookshops left are the used one and the fine used bookstore in Chico is CovidClosed but will be back.

3. Amazon coupled with eBay brings one an infinite selection very fast and in the case of smartphones.... well I keep over 300 books in my KindleApp for idle reading or serious reading at odd moments. (Protip: Kindle books give you from a little to a lot of the book for free under "send a sample to")

Tina said...

"as if somehow they are sanitized by the mail, or something."

Heh. I toast all my mail, including the books I've bought online, since this started. In the oven at 200F for 10 minutes (or until I remember to turn it off).

You make a good point, and it concerns me too. I don't know any way to counter it, other than to keep putting books out there. It's always been a miracle that any books survive, hasn't it? Perhaps we can trust that, whether we write or make or keep them, God - who invented books - still loves them enough to assure that they remain through this era, intact for a new generation, just as they have through the eons before us.

Looking forward to your next book!

Tina said...

When I say "toast" the mail and books, I mean in the regular full sized oven. Not the toaster over or microwave... those really would be a "book burner"!!!

JoelAT said...

I am one who will always read, I will always collect, and I will never stop. Of course I am an old fart.