Where Are All the Books Going?

by Erin Whittinghill

imageSome of my friends are absolutely knocking themselves out to produce novels. This is in addition to the nearly 24-7 jobs that provide their livelihoods. Days and months, years even, are spent on publishing and marketing decisions of every level. The initial writing, they claim, is the easy part. Their publishing and sales processes, however, whether self- or small press, involve twists and turns, dilemmas and drama that could spawn decades of juicy nighttime television. And I wonder, in the long-run, to what real end?

To be sure, the satisfaction of completing a project the size of a novel and having a tangible product must be thrilling. The often-discussed “piece of immortality” rationale is another solid motive for enduring the process. But who will read their lengthy tomes as well as those of other writers?

When I read author Nicholas Carr’s chilling “Hal and Me,” an essay in which he explored the negative effects of Internet usage on his levels of concentration and cognition, I began to consider where we are seemingly headed not only as humans but, more specifically, as writers and readers. Carr notes, “The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle,” and he adds that many career academics, not unlike their students, no longer seem to be able to remain focused on a lengthy text. The reading process has become more of an exercise in “skimming.” The most disturbing element of the essay is Carr’s quote from Duke University professor Katherine Hayles. She claims, “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore.” Carr explains, “The students she’s talking about are students of literature.” Sounds eerily familiar.

At present I teach college composition at both a university and a community college, and my experiences have mirrored Hayles’ and likely those of numerous other instructors. It is true that the students are often eager to discuss what they read and argue the merits of an author’s position or narrative, but only if the text is no longer than an article or a (truly) short story or, even better, a poem (of course, not the epic type). Rather than the typical resistance of previous generations to read something thrust upon them, this seems indicative of a new norm regarding the way in which young people process a text.

My concern? Someday, not far off, my generation will not sing about metaphorical flowers; rather, ours will offer another melodic lament that asks, “Where have all the long books gone?” Not exactly catchy.

Undoubtedly, the way in which humans consume and digest information is changing. And younger humans are consuming fewer books than their predecessors. If it is true that a humanities-based education—and that includes literature—produces well-rounded, thoughtful citizens, then what type of society is in the offing?

I admit that I, too, have succumbed to eBook fever, a type of reading that seems to be a stopover for many on the way to reducing their encounters with lengthy texts. For me, initially, eBook consumption was about the rush from inexpensive texts obtained immediately. Then it became about being able to dip in and out of a novel while on the go. Not long after, I noticed that reading shorter segments of the text suited the way my own attention span seemed to be shrinking. Now I am deliberately and determinedly returning to reading the books that I can hold in my hands and ponder at length.

Our technological “progress” raises myriad questions about where we humans—and our books—are headed. Will we one day reminisce about how humans once spoke of the great works (they had actually read) and how the study of literature was once a legitimate academic discipline?

What do you think, readers and writers? Toward what type of future are we cascading?

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