Why We Don’t Read More? Are Books Still Our Best Bet?

Image - iStockphoto: BsWei
Image – iStockphoto: BsWei

What If Books Just Aren’t It Anymore?

Why don’t we start with the assumption that social media and the web are taking over because people actually enjoy them and go from there?

Baldur Bjarnason
Baldur Bjarnason

Baldur Bjarnason does seem to actually enjoy getting het up about things. And he’s good at it, too.

People generally like people, and having them on tap in a context that you can turn on and off at will just increases the attraction and utility.

What he’s coming to is an important and too-rarely discussed element of the debate about reading today. Quite common among the bookish is the lament thatAngry Birds are eating literature’s lunch; that television really has killed the authorial star; that gaming will eventually wipe out all other players; and that we’d better learn to love Zoella and Alfie, because one day they’ll be all we have left in popular culture.

The urgency with which such challenges-from-other-media arguments are made is probably not misplaced.

But it’s not often that someone goes the next step and asks the question that Bjarnason is asking in his piece: Why should people read more books? To wit:

Why isn’t the onus on those who want to promote book reading to show that books are more enjoyable, more useful, and more relevant than social media, apps, and the web?

This is a far more pressing question than most commentators in the field like to concede. But we’ve seen such concerns suppressed before.

A similar level of denial was evident, for example, in the fading of live theater when, during the last century, proponents of people acting things out on cardboard sets under colored lights were incensed if one of us who was doing professional theater criticism dared to utter the phrase “museum art.”

But theater is a museum art. That doesn’t mean that it can’t provide a riveting experience of aesthetic power, not by a very long shot. Sit in the great theater at Epidauros and watch the National Theater of Greece perform the Medea and you’ll come out changed.

And what Bjarnason is doing here is helping us to understand something easier to swallow. Thankfully, we don’t need to name reading a “museum art.” Not if the world of books and the people who enjoy them understand what Bjarnason is saying.

Go back and get that last bit again: the onus is on the people who promote books to prove that they have a place in a world that would rather watch an amateur singing competition on television than understand what Joan Didion knows.

Bjarnason raises the dark flag of possibility that we bookish fans do, in fact, know what handwriting we could one day read on modern walls:

Most people in publishing are beset by the horrifying suspicion that books simply aren’t competitive with other media…They know they’d lose that argument. For your average consumer, books are a worse learning environment, less fun, less rewarding, and less relevant to their day to day lives than almost any other alternative.

How much do we look like those mid-century musical-comedy fans who seemed (then as now) to think that watching countless revivals of The Fantasticks was a positive experience?

‘Why Can’t We Read Anymore?’

Hugh  McGuire
Hugh McGuire

All this started with those cave drawings, of course, but all thisstarted with a piece from Hugh McGuire, the creator ofLibriVox and Pressbooks, a highly respected and familiar member of the publishing community. McGuire is also co-editor with Brian O’Leary of the anthology Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto (O’Reilly Media, 2011). It’s McGuire to whom Bjarnason is responding.

And I’m delighted that McGuire will be a member of a fine team of observers in the keynote track of our IDPF Digital Book Conference (#DigiBook15, International Digital Publishing Forum)  with Richard Nash, Molly Barton, andJoe Wikert. The session, part of the programming in which I’ve had a hand, is called “What Can Publishers Do Better To Put Readers First?” The full speakers’ list is here for the conference, set on May 27 and 28 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, opening BookExpo America.

McGuire’s essay, well-received, was titled Why Can’t We Read Anymore? Or, can books save us from what digital does to our brains?

What he was on about is the distressing tendency many of us are noticing to have our attention spans — or our ability to focus at will for long period — affected in a bad way, apparently by the short-read, staccato nature of our electronic media, including and maybe most of all, the social ones.

Recounting his inability to get through more than four books per year, McGuire wrote:

I’ve dedicated my life one way or another to books, I believe in them, yet, I wasn’t able to read them.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: What’s The Real Question? — Why We Don’t Read More? Or, Are Books Still Our Best Bet?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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