“If religion is an answer, if political ideology is an answer, then literature is an inquiry; great literature, by asking extraordinary questions,
opens new doors in our minds.”
(Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, 1990).
Okay, this is going to sound like I’m 80 years old. For the record, I’m not! But when I first started working in publishing, a book, for the most part, was “just a book“ – the old-fashioned kind made of paper, cardboard and ink. It had a spine and a front cover, we referred to books as “hard copies” and produced “book jackets,” those annoying book jackets, which I always ended up throwing out, because they got dirty or creased with small cracks in the corners due to the tumultuous inside life of a teenage girl’s bag.
If it was really high tech (and bear in mind that my generation grew up with the walkman!) the book came with a CD that featured things like the sounds of different birds’ mating signals. (That was admittedly an odd book!) The point is that back then very few book professionals in my immediate surroundings worried much about e-books or e-readers, let alone the possibility of on- or offline story streaming. It seemed like a utopian fantasy, because how could a book be anything other than a book?
“In those days people rarely questioned the inevitable status of books as the primary containers of knowledge.
That was then.
Over the years, as technology has made way for a myriad of new bookish possibilities in the digital domain, people from within and without the book industry have cried “The Book is Dead!” on multiple occasions. People have come to me and worried: “Do you think the book will survive? What is the future of books? How will the book ever be able to compete with digital? Will kids eventually forget about books?” And so on. And every time it has seemed as if the room goes quiet and everyone turn to me with high anticipation of the answer – as if I were The One with The Answer to these questions. Much to their disappointment, I usually answer something along the lines of: “I think digital is here to stay and that the book will find a way to live alongside it.” This is often taken as a sign of the decay of the modern world.
But the thing is this.
I don’t think the modern world is decaying.
It’s just introducing new ideas like it has always done.
Let me clarify. I am a Bibliophile (capital B) and feel privileged to have grown up in a house, where books stood from from floor to ceiling in (nearly) every room. We read and talked a lot. About books. And as a result, today, I not-so-secretly wish that my bedroom and/or living room was the castle library in Beauty & the Beast. In that sense, I am extremely old-fashioned and formed by my #bookish upbringing. I love books, the paper ones that you can curl up with in a comfy chair and write notes and smiley commentaries in the margins of. I have always read my books that way and I still read most of my books that way. With a pen. But it is also that very same bookish upbringing that has made me eager to learn more about the future of reading.
I love books, but I also both own and use a Kindle. Because. I am curious.
I have always quietly flirted with multiple imaginings of the future book. What will it be like? How will humanity administer all of the accumulated technological expertise and develop new ways of sharing our stories and knowledge with one another? In my optics, the future does not exclude printed books. On the contrary.
A lot has happened since the book with mating birds’ signals (thank God!) Yes, today we have Kindles and Amazon, Goodreads and Readme Apps that will summarize any book in 15 minutes – you don’t even have to actually read it yourself! The future seems to be extremely superficial and all about accessibility, data and short cuts. No time for slow-thinking and critical contemplation, since you can always just google it all. Snap snap. But before you reach the hypertension state, let’s remember that in the middle of this supposedly decadent future stuff, Amazon decided to open several brick-and-mortar bookstores and more and more international book reports indicate that sales on the now so-called p-books are increasing.
I am happy-and-not-surprised to see that never before have so many people talked about the analogue pleasures of books: the slowness of being unplugged, of digging deep into the text (literally) and tasting the words, feeling the touch of the paper and enjoying the aesthetics of a beautiful front cover; the mindfulness of the reading moment. Books provide what the fast-paced hamster wheel of modern life does not: A place of quiet comfort, of joy and community – a sense of belonging.
“In some sense, the digital turn in our culture has made us fall in love with analogue again – not that some of us had ever actually fallen out of love with it, but still.
The reading culture is thriving! And instead of being depressed that (some) people think of the future in terms of negatives, I believe that all of the above worries reflect a genuine interest in books, in the written word. If they’re not talking about actual books, people talk about something interesting they read somewhere, some text or phrase that moved them, that made them think and grow.
Because this is what books do. They move you!
We could choose to remain pessimistic and frown upon the decay of the modern world, but we could also change our focus and notice all the people (young as well as old), who continue to initiate and engage in thousands of borderless bookish conversations all around us: People start blogs to present their own poetic writings or release podcasts to share their creative ideas. Booktubers (often teenagers!) make booktrailers, keep to-be-read lists, arrange reading competitions, and their channels are internationally renowned with hundreds of thousands of followers. What is more, the number of Instagram accounts that celebrate #bookshelfporn or @hotdudesreading are constantly growing. Some bookish hashtags even have more than 4,5 mio post shares (#bookworm is one). Four point five million post shares! Think about that for a moment. They might not all be conducted as in the olden days, but that – to me – are all conversations about books, about reading. Digital or analogue, what I care for is the story.
Besides being a gateway to knowledge, reading generates perspective, the sharing of which is key for creative thinking, innovation and growth for people individually and communities collectively. Reading makes you grow as an individual, sharing reading experiences grows a community – like that on Instagram or that in the bookshop. Ark Review and the piece you’re reading right now is just one of the ways in which the Ark community embraces and uses the digital domain to open up the inter-human dialogue that is conducted in the realm of the bookshop every single day, as stated in our Mission statement.
Where books provide the content and topics of conversation, the digital domain provides the possibility to reach more readers – it’s an opportunity to connect across geographical distances. Big or small. It’s an opportunity to connect. With you.
The gist of it all is that when we share our (own favourite) stories and listen to those of others, we enter a special shared space, where books make #conversation #connection #magic. And this sharing mentality is what resonates with the modern life – “sharing is caring,” as the saying goes.
Reading, nowadays, is both private and public, analogue and digital – like it or not.
The good news is that the book actually lives and that it does so, because literature continues to asks extraordinary questions, as Rushdie puts it in the introductory quote. By insisting on the constant inquiry, books open up new doors in our minds. So let us dare to ask those questions and let us take the time to actually listen to the multifaceted answers that always follow. Let us pass through those doors and explore and embrace the future. Come what may. After all, there’s no going back.
As the clever Heraclitus once said: “The only thing that is constant is change.” So we might as well change our perspective a little – who knows, we might learn and grow from it. And in response to those who fear the dominant powers of Amazon and the possible extinction of the small independent bookshops, I always think of the wise words of Charles Darwin:
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
If we continue to cultivate the how-it-used-to-be without at least squinting at that which is to come, we will be blinded by nostalgia and our stubborn insistence on maintaining the status quo of the old world. And in doing so, we may very well lose sight of the fundamental curiosity that was the driving force of writing and reading in the first place.
In my opinion, the future book (whatever that may be) does not exclude or eliminate the book book (if we can call it that), and if you really think about it, the crucial question is not whether or not analogue will be able to compete with digital. To me, digital and analogue go together and compliment each other. The crucial question concerns time, how we spend our spare time; do we read or do we not?
To me, slow is perfectly okay as long as we keep moving forward.
For our survival, as Darwin suggests, we need to stay curious and open-minded and think alongthe lines of the digital development. To be agile and adaptable and in the process perhaps grow a little perspective, too.
As long as we keep reading, we keep moving forward.
(Originally published in The Ark Review on August 16, 2016).