After the End of the "The End"

The age of the books

In an earlier column, I discussed the fate of the book as material object, pointing out that soon we may download books from the Internet and suggesting how that might affect how we use and value them. That leaves a deeper question. Can the age of the book as we know it be coming to an end? I refer not to the material thing, the bound book with paper pages, but rather to the book in its wider meaning as a unique mode for channeling and holding our attention. If, as I suspect, the book is in fact in decline, then the sustained, reflective and disciplined mode of thought the book made possible may be dying as well; the generations that follow us will be different kinds of people, living in a different kind of world.

Let me be clear; things that present the appearance of books and are sold as books are by no means all books, in the ultimate sense that interests me. We all know that manuals, dictionaries, directories, encyclopedias, text books, catalogues, anthologies, and the like are already far along in the process of mutating into websites full of cross references to other sites to which the reader (or rather the user) can jump at any time. Thus they are becoming less fixed entities to hold attention than inextricable parts of the maze that is cyberspace.

What I care about is the true book, generally with a single author, presenting a single, complex, yet more-or-less coherent viewpoint, the sort of entity that might allow us to think of the past few centuries as the "age of the book."

The age of the book is sometimes accused of sponsoring "linear thinking," presumably because a text could be arranged as one very long continuous line, which you start to read at the beginning and stop at the end. The truth is that, in its effects on our minds, any worthwhile book is highly non-linear. A typical book cannot be read in one sitting. Reading it requires attention sustained both during the reading and in between, in a necessary period of reflection on what's been read.

Such reading also, perhaps more than any other form of sustained attention, forces us to re-pattern our prior outlook, our prior knowledge and our prior habits of thought along lines emanating from the mind of that book's author. While we are absorbed in the reading. we come as close as we each can to being that particular author. And, when we are not that close, we seem to be in intimate dialogue with the author, engaged with a form of intimacy hard to experience in direct concourse, even with our very best friends.

The book then is the culmination of a long and difficult development of language, in a sense the largest grammatical construct, far beyond the sentence, the paragraph or even the more quickly digestible chapter, essay or short story. It is the most integral and complex means of conveying one mind to others through words, calling upon, and seemingly reciprocating the most complex form of verbal attention.

It is for all these reasons that true books, both of fiction and non-fiction, can have a deep effect on how we view the world, basically changing us. These changes are not limited to individuals, but can be society-wide, altering politics, establishing new modes of acting in the world, new global outlooks, spawning new movements of all kinds.

Through this importance, just the titles of certain books represent fixed points in our culture, references by means of which we draw the attention of others to our own ways of thinking just as they are the means by which we often organize the flow of our own thoughts. Consider this miscellaneous listing: Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," Gunther Grass's "the Tin Drum", Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations," Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Dante's "Divine Comedy," Jane Jacobs' "Death and Life of Great American Cities," Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations," George Eliot's "Middlemarch," Herbert Marcuse's "One-dimensional Man," Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punish," Newton's "Principia," Antonio Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks, " Sigmund Freud's 'Interpretation of Dreams," Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex," Karl Popper's "Open Society and Its Enemies" Vladimir Lenin's "What is to be Done," Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's "Hundred Years of Solitude," William James' "Pragmatism," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time" Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich."

I have deliberately made this list long to prove what a vast thicket exists of books that somehow matter. Each of these books has altered the course of huge number of lives, and whenever one is read it still does. Even if you have never read some specific book I've mentioned, you are likely to recognize it just by the title and to have some awareness of the force it has or had on those who did read it. For each of those you have read with any care, like as not the title summarizes a well-remembered experience, not simply of what the book says, but of your passage through it, your intense involvement with the mind of the author. Tens of thousands of lesser works have similar holds on some of their passionate readers.

Each new generation has had to come into its cultural inheritance by reading the books of prior ones. Such reading was for long an essential part of the experience of growing up as an educated person, and therefore as a person fully worthy of respect, able to hold one's own in arguments about the future, or about the nature of reality. Yet it appears that such basic bookishness is already on the way out. Here in America, young people of intelligence and promise can now go through college without ever having read books for pleasure, and possibly without having read a single book from start to finish-or being significantly influenced by any book, whether fiction or non-fiction. The numerous shorter, swifter, less intense demands on attention can easily keep us from the open, reflective, even dreamy state of mind we need really to pay attention to a serious or substantial book.

Thus, today, TV series, movies, popular music, video and computer games-even software programs as such-partially fill the place held by books only a generation or two ago. And by now even TV series, pop music albums themselves may be on the way out, to be replaced by miniseries and music videos and then by shorter and shorter sound-bites, as well as video and text-bites. Increasingly, these will be found on quickly scanned web pages, in chat rooms, and on repeatedly forwarded bits of e-mail.

The university used be the very heart of book culture, promoting reading, studying, fervently discussing, and of course much of the writing. But current American university admissions policies now actually work against taking books seriously, because getting into the better colleges requires a list of accomplishments that do not include the supposedly passive act of reading. College admissions personnel are much more impressed by extra-curricular "activity:" sports, part-time jobs, community service, travel, research projects, entrepreneurship, technical achievements such as designing web sites or arts such as dance. (Of course, paying careful attention is in reality far from passive. The mind of a good reader is necessarily in continual, far-ranging motion, even though this activity may not be signalled to an outsider by gross muscular movement.)

This preference for obvious activity means both that admissions departments are looking for potential future stars-that is, attention getters- and that they don't want to expend too much attention in finding them. Their attitudes are mirrored by many others, who regard serious reading as an increasingly quirky way to waste time.

And they are not wrong in this estimation. Serious reading is quirky. You are most likely to be fully attentive to an author who connects most strongly with whom you feel yourself most deeply to be, that is who seems most fully attentive to you. And, as you are changed by that experience, you become more individual, less like your neighbors; and then you read something else, and the process continues.

Other media, and even books, when they are intended for some predetermined "target audience" that shares superficial characteristics such as age, sex, and income bracket are by design less likely to grab any particular person very deeply. But these other media do compete for attention with true books, and not to pay attention to them is a path to social and cultural isolation.

So it may well be that soon reading serious books will simply drop off the radar screen of worthwhile pursuits. (To be sure, things may not be quite so stark in Europe. Yet it is America, perhaps precisely because of this growing lack of depth, that seems ever more dominant on the world scene, and thus ever-more central as progenitor of future life on the planet.)

If we take the historical long view, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by this state of affairs. The book, as we know it today, by a single author conveying organized thoughts on a single theme has been around as a fixed form only since sometime in the seventeenth century, and really took firm hold still more recently, in the 19th c., only a short time ago relative to a few thousand years of recorded history. So the book's demise, if it occurs, would hardly be an unusual happening in human history. That wouldn't prevent it from being an enormous shock to those of us old enough to have grown up deep within the book culture. More importantly, it wouldn't lessen the profound effects of that demise on the future course of civilization.

Without the book, coherent complex visions will no longer be the basis for any kind of attitude nor any kind of action. This outcome is not necessarily bad. Some argue that authors ranging from Plato to Rousseau to Paine to Marx to Hitler to Hayek to Sartre to Ayn Rand to E.O. Wilson to Foucault to Freud have all had most baleful effects. No matter how complex any single book is, no matter how deeply it may attach itself to and alter the minds of its readers, it is still too simple. Simply by grabbing hold so firmly to the mind, an author becomes, in effect, a dictator. More dialectic and democratic means of sharing attention are possibly to be preferred.

In a future column, I will discuss the alternatives that might emerge. Whatever they may be, they will be unlikely to support much that we take for granted, and that arose very much through the culture of the book: the nation-state, doctrinal religions, broad scientific research programs, well defined political movements, military doctrines, our sense of self with a unitary narrative, unified views of any broad field, the university itself, and even earlier schooling as it was not long ago- the list of what flourished with the book is long and deep. The people who live after the book will be almost a new species.