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Notes on the (non-)death of the book

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Is the book really dying this time, as Will Self suggests?
If serious novels are still being written and read, then it's tough to say that the literary novel is dying.

I’m tired of reading about the death of the book. It’s not true, in the first place, and in the second, it’s a lazy signifier, a way of addressing cultural import (or risk) that’s not really justified.

Take Will Self’s essay this past weekend in the Guardian. Titled “The Novel Is Dead (This Time It’s for Real),” it uses a conversation the author had recently with his teenage son as a starting point for a meditation on the futility of long-form fiction in a world of tweets and bytes.

As it happens, I’m sympathetic to Self’s method — my book "The Lost Art of Reading" is built around a similar device. But I also think his argument is shopworn: secondhand and not particularly apropos.

“The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture,” Self writes, “is indeed dying before our eyes.” But then, immediately, he doubles back: “Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying — the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read.”

If serious novels will neither cease to be written nor read, then it’s tough to say that the literary novel is dying — any more now than it has ever been. I agree with Self that there was a time when such books had a currency they don’t have currently; he says the 1980s, but I’d suggest it was well before. By the 1980s, chain bookstores and corporate publishing were ascendant; we had MTV and personal computers, those emblems of a shift in cultural access, cultural style.

No, for me, you have to go back to 1950s, or even earlier — Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the 1920s and 1930s, not only novelists but also household names. In his 1967 memoir “Stop-Time,” Frank Conroy ends a paean to youthful reading with the following: “It was around this time that I first thought of becoming a writer. In a cheap novel the hero was asked his profession at a cocktail party. ‘I’m a novelist,’ he said, and I remember putting the book down and thinking, my God, what a beautiful thing to be able to say.”

Do teenagers still feel this way? Not mine, certainly, and apparently not Self’s, but some do, I’m sure. And yet, to frame the question around such issues is, for me, to miss the point. It brings to mind another essay, published last week in the New York Times Magazine, in which Mireille Silcoff argues that the rise in books as fetish objects is an indicator of their demise. “When a book becomes pure décor,” she writes, “it ceases to live its intended life.”

Well, of course — although it was ever thus. Silcoff’s lament over the rise of “books for a penny on eBay or books by the pound from stores like Chicago’s Market Fresh” overlooks the fact that decorators have long offered books by the yard. Does this have anything to do with reading? Absolutely not. And yet, it is a mistake, I think, to equate fashion with a larger cultural move away from what’s contained in books.

Where both Self and Silcoff lose me is in their faith that there was once a golden age of reading. Self blames the critics, calling us “the possessors of Gutenberg minds” (borrowing a phrase from Marshall McLuhan), without any recognition that McLuhan himself has become an emblem of another world.

Let’s forget Gutenberg for the moment; in a constantly changing literary landscape, people get at books in all sorts of ways. Last month, my colleague Hector Tobar reported on a UNESCO study of Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe that uncovered “an unexpected consequence of the smartphone revolution: People with limited access to books are reading more, thanks to those tiny portable screens.”

On the one hand, this frames the death of the book argument in terms of an unconscious elitism: It’s better to read on a page than on a screen. On the other, it helps to highlight a fundamental misapprehension about why we read and write.

At the heart of Self’s argument, after all (and in some sense, Siloff’s also), is a belief in, and lament for, posterity. This idea, that in writing we leave a piece of ourselves behind, may be the most pernicious lie we tell ourselves.

Why? In part, it’s existential: If natural history has anything to tell us, it’s that we will one day be extinct. But even more, posterity is a fool’s game, especially in a world where hundreds of thousands of books are published every year. Amid all the noise, who, really, can get noticed? And how long can such notice last? No, the only reason to write is self-expression, which is by its nature a fleeting conceit.

This has always been the challenge for anyone who writes: how to evoke experience in a manner that does it justice, that gives dignity to the evanescence, to the ephemerality. That it will disappear is part of the point; we’re just creating sand paintings against the void.

Are books dying? Only in the sense that everything is dying — which is to say, only in the sense that they are alive.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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