In the 1960s, the Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan declared that the printed book would soon die out. Electronic media, which could instantly show what was happening around the world, would soon create a “global village”—McLuhan coined the term—in which books would become “obsolete.”
McLuhan—who also created the now-famous expression “the medium is the message” and was the indirect source of Andy Warhol’s own famous expression, “fifteen minutes of fame”—did not intend himself to make the book obsolete. He was writing books, after all, and he didn’t plan to stop.
But he was no Luddite (the Luddites being a group of textile artisans in the early 19th century who perceived a threat in the then-new farm machines that could do the work of multiple men and thus were taking away their jobs; the Luddites responded by destroying the machines. Thus, a “Luddite” has come to refer to anyone who resists or appears threatened by new technology).
Advancing technologies, like TV, fascinated him. He saw, in his idea of a global village, what would later take form as the World Wide Web—the Internet you may be reading this on right now. And in McLuhan’s eyes, the print book was too simple, too visual-focused, a medium to be as relevant as it once was. His many fans heralded him as a prophet of the electronic age.
He wasn’t the first, of course, and he was far from the last. In 1930, the little-known American author, Robert Brown, claimed in The Readies that “The written word hasn’t kept up with the age” and described books—in, of course, his own—as “antiquated word containers.” And declaring the print book dead, to say nothing of reading, is a kind of requirement nowadays for the controversy-minded. If you ask Nicholas Negroponte, the book has been dead since 1996—a point he reaffirmed in 2010, in case you missed it the first time. Negroponte’s point is that e-books are now outselling print books (which is true, at least on the Kindle).
Other critics have claimed that reading itself may become simplified or simply vanish not because e-books are now here, but rather because the electronic age itself is not conducive to deep reading. If you believe the infamous Nicholas Carr, for instance—author of the endlessly discussed article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—our brains are actually changing to accommodate the newer, faster technologies we use every day, making us more accustomed to skimming over bits of information than actively engaging with a long book—or even just a long paragraph on a webpage.
While Carr’s claims about the brain have been attacked by many neuroscientists and tech critics who say they are premature, it’s undeniable that many kids today find it difficult or dull to sit down to read a book—or even to read an entire article to find information. I should know; I’ve been teaching English 101 and 102 to freshman at Florida State University for three years now, where I’m also completing my own graduate studies.
An interesting side to this whole debate is how developing countries fit into it.
I’ve noticed that in Dominica, and in other islands in the archipelago, there still seems to exist for a fair number of people a fascination with the written word, a kind of respect for those who write and read. More fascination and respect, anyway, than generally seems the case in areas that have long, well-defined literary histories, where reading and writing often seem less exceptional, less unusual, tasks. I’m talking not about critics, but about the general populace.
Clearly, not everyone on the island appreciates reading. We have issues with literacy—and it is telling that the Nature Island Literary Festival has many times (if aptly) been referred to as a “literacy” festival. And those who vaguely admire others who do it may not pick up a book themselves. But this respect, even quiet reverence, is good.
Small events can lead to large ones. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the great (if accidentally discovered) idea of meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1961: that a seemingly minor, negligible occurrence, like the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Peking, can lead, over time, into something significant, like a tornado in Texas. Lorenz dubbed this the Butterfly Effect (though his original image was of a seagull). And it can apply, in modified form, to this debate. If we want long-term results, we need short-term plans—though what those long-term results end up looking like may differ radically from what we’d conceived, due to a range of phenomena.
If we want to see more bookstores, prize-winning writers, good English teachers, and good, smart readers in Dominica, we need to show our demand. Our short-term actions may lead to something expected—or unexpected. That day you can but choose not to purchase that book may end up having bad consequences for books being available in general in the future—unlikely as it may seem on that day. We can’t buy every book we want—especially not at the price of some books—but if we can, we should. In brief: every little bit counts, sometimes more than you think.
The book hasn’t died out, as you might have noticed. There are many possible reasons for this. One is that, as James Gleick has written, the “the book is like a hammer. That is to say,” Gleick continues, that “it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer. Likewise, the bicycle is alive and well. It was invented in a world without automobiles, and for speed and range it was quickly surpassed by motorcycles and all kinds of powered scooters. But there is nothing quaint about bicycles. They outsell cars.” The book, in other words, is ideally suited to doing what it’s supposed to, and so it will remain, even as new technologies appear.
The other side to this is one we in the Caribbean may understand more readily. For e-books to function, they need a device capable of bringing them up—a computer, an e-reader, a device with the right app. Lose the device and you lose the ability to read the books. But more to the point, these devices need power. Electricity. This isn’t usually a pressing dilemma. But when you live in Dominica, where lights can go without warning (occasionally, you may have the fortune of being told in advance if you happen to hear it on the radio), this is a real potential issue, even for devices that can store a charge. When hurricanes and tropical storms hit, this power outage may become still more significant.
And we cannot assume we will always have either power or the right device to read those books. Technology changes quickly, and what seems perfect and cutting-edge today may well be obsolete tomorrow. Consider the fate of the floppy disk, which is now a fossil of a bygone age, an evolutionary technological dead-end.
But some books have died out. A grand set of encyclopedias, as used to be placed strategically in a home so that visitors couldn’t miss them? A relic of the past. Encyclopedias, of course, live on online, as do standard dictionaries. But such books will likely be in the future more like collectors’ items, beautiful and perhaps relatively rare objects to display and pass down as pieces of history. And yet other the book itself lives on.
At the end of the day, though, what matters is that we take the time to learn. If you can, mix print with digital. Go to YouTube or BigThink.com and look up your favorite authors and thinkers—you might be surprised how much great material (lectures, interviews, debates) is there. Check out Project Gutenberg, which has a vast range of free digitized books. Check out Google Books, where a huge number of texts, old and new, are available in full or in part for you to read. Or go to our very own Nature Island Literary Festival in August. Any and all of these can make you a participant in the ongoing discussion about what place reading and books of all formats have in the world we live in.
I think they’re important, and not just for taking in information; reading is often a solitary, hopefully quiet act, and finding solitude and quiet is, to me, a commendable task, especially if you’re using the two to discover new worlds. I love movies, documentaries, and videogames too, you know—by no means should you give those up on the off-chance you agree with what I’ve written—but reading seems, to me, a special task, irreplaceable by other forms of learning.
It no longer matters, in some sense, if we don’t have immediate access to a vast library or good bookstore. Believe you me, I want to see both in Dominica. But there are other ways to get info while we hope and work to bring better reading facilities into the island. Use the library—when was the last time you were there, really?
And if you have a computer, use it.
But whatever you use, don’t let reading die. The book, print or digital, is not dead as yet. It will likely remain with us for a long time—but a part of that has to do with you.
I’ll end with the words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
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