As we wind down the “aughts” decade, with digital books galore on the horizon (and the $195 Norton facsimile edition of C.J. Jung'sobjet d'art/culture The Red Book selling out around the country), the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays,interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? Here is Anis Shivani, a Houston-based fiction writer, poet, and critic, on the subject.
Most discussion of this subject centers around technology—the various forms the book is delivered in, the mutations it has yet to suffer and abide. Also, most of the talk considers the book in the U.S. in isolation from trends in the rest of the world. In the last decade, we’ve endured an unmitigated love affair with all things “digital,” leading to equally utopian and paranoiac sentiment toward libraries, the Google book settlement, the Kindle. I would like to be a contrarian voice and argue for the possibility that the book is not going anywhere, that no form of digital conversion is likely to affect the status of the book as the best repository of information and wisdom, and that furthermore the book is prepped for a marvelous renaissance in the next decade.
More than any other civilization, we’re likely to get hysterical over technology. We fear it as much as we love it. We extrapolate massive shifts based on subtle winds. I predict that reading books on machines will remain, as it is today, a minute fraction of total reading. Rather, it is possible to imagine a near future when the newness of the emerging technologies will quickly wear off, to give new prestige to the book in its traditional form. (I suspect something similar is likely to happen with the diluted forms of “reporting” emerging to compete with traditional newspaper reporting.) No technology can replace the book; and I don’t just mean that the book will assume a marginal place as a fetishistic object, a stale monument to the ruins of learning. As debased forms of “social interaction”—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, whatever else will spring up in the next decade to supplement or replace them—sink to the lowly place they deserve in the human imagination, only the book will counter the assault.
Google is just one company, and it may not last for ever; it’s impossible to know if it will retain its dominant position in the year 2020. Google’s urge to digitalize every word ever written recalls Admiral John Poindexter’s fantasy of Total Information Awareness, which in Google’s terms is Total Information Scanning. The book has overcome previous challenges to its dominance because of the unique culture that surrounds it—any number of rituals, blessings, pursuits, secrecies, treasures, intimacies, silences specific to it—and is likely to persist in the face of the new “threats” because the wider culture of the book is irreplaceable.
Will the book become a minority affair, while the masses consume only the spawn of J. K. Rowling and Dan Brown? Again, in a world where information is debased by thoughtless forms of technology—inferior texts claiming to speak for the real thing itself—the book will rise in privilege, and become rather a democratic affair again.
It is the gatekeepers of the book who, in this last decade, have been on an unremitting mission to bring about the book’s destruction: librarians who purge books to make room for technological substitutes, newspaper publishers who’re the first to voice the irrelevance of the book review, publishers who do everything possible to fulfill their own prophecies of the end of the serious book. These gatekeepers in book culture are akin to politicians pronouncing the death of liberalism, and proceeding to do whatever they can to realize the predicted end. In the long run, both efforts are doomed. To posit the end (or marked decline) of the book is to posit the end of civilization itself; neither is likely to happen. What will happen is the lessening of the power of the guardians, who will be shown to be charlatans with queer death wishes. Their replacements are already in view.
In the U.S., book culture will reign supreme in the next decade, as imperialism finally unwinds to its hollow entropic doom. The go-go economy of the eighties and nineties, the foundation for imperial adventures, is unlikely to return in anything like its previous form—the rest of the world won’t tolerate it. Either a sudden crash or a more tolerable slow unraveling will finally reveal the truth of the unsustainability of empire—as it became obvious to the British at a certain point—and this in turn will spark a search for the truth about what happened and why. It should lead to an unbelievable revival of the book. The book has been under threat by diversions; the end of the age of diversions is upon us.
But the real near-term surge in the supremacy of the book will come not as a result of changes in the U.S., but changes in the rest of the world. Perhaps a quarter of the world’s population will soon join the solid middle class. They are the ones who read books. A resurgent Asia, led by China and India, will prompt new avenues of thought in a chastened U.S. Already, the losses of the “war on terror” (which ultimately boils down to the U.S.’s resentment and anger over the rise of the rest of the world) have prompted a veritable rebirth, at least in fiction. Most of these writers weren’t born here—Aleksander Hemon, Mohsin Hamid, Joseph O’Neill—but they have revitalized the language, producing fiction as good as anything ever written. In the poetry world, our conversion to rank totalitarianism is beginning to produce a samizdat poetry (though it is aboveground) that reeks of protest and refusal. Then there is Torsten Krol—the Daniel Defoe of today—who if he writes a few more books like the two he has already written, will secure a permanent place in the pantheon of literary masters. There cannot exist writers as lacerating as Torsten Krol if the book is dying.
Here are some of the factors that will create a surge in the quality of books being produced and the breadth and depth of their readership worldwide, which in turn will have salutary effects in the U.S.: a) the cross-fertilization of ideas across cultures was only a vague dream in the nineties; only now, under immense international tension, and the ease of global communications, is it emerging into full-blown reality. Book culture will be immeasurably strengthened as a result; b) the very speed and violence of temporal images, disseminated globally in “real-time,” dictates the countervailing need for lasting texts to make sense out of the chaos; there are newly liberated zones of the world in desperate need of such texts, and they will propel this need inward to the Western zones of book culture; c) the meaning of literacy (and “education”) is changing, becoming more democratic, autonomous, self-driven; at the same time, the divisions between youth and old age are collapsing, so that previous norms of education as a privilege, or a time-specific activity, are also falling by the wayside; if we posit an expansion of literacy, we have to posit an expansion of book culture; d) the world is delicately poised between universal authoritarianism and a subdued liberalism that dare nor speak its own name; newly empowered peoples are reflecting on the best choices for their communities. The book will be central to clarifying the passage to a new global enlightenment (its effects in the exhausted Western centers may not be as obvious, or may be obvious only to later historians, but the effects will be real).
The last decade was a (necessary) purge. Good riddance to the dead dross (those overrated icons beloved of the lazy critic) of the beginning of the decade. Now comes the rejuvenation.