Critical Mass

Guest Post: Michael Antman on the Next Decade in Book Culture

By Michael Antman

The latest in our series about the future of book culture, which includes essays, interviews, and free-range opining, is from NBCC member critic Michael Antman, a finalist for this year's Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Reviewing.



I tend to distrust apocalyptic predictions because, by definition, every one of them is dead wrong, except of course for the final one, by which time none of us will be around to acknowledge that at last someone got it right. My healthy skepticism dates back to high school, when some earnest young ecologists on a national doom-and-gloom tour warned my fellow students and me, gathered for the final period of the day in a lecture room, that humanity had no more than five years left if we didn’t immediately, and radically, change our wasteful ways. We walked out in the spring sunshine after that scarifying lecture and the environmentalists were promptly forgotten by all as we chose up sides for a touch football game, or flirted, or went off to Fluky‘s for hot dogs and milkshakes, and here were are two generations later, my classmates and I, still ticking.

Life goes on. The urge to create literature, bask in its pleasures, and critically engage with the best and worst of it isn’t going to disappear in the next decade or two just because digitization is inexorably advancing its hegemony over the printed word. However, the environmentalists who visited us that day were correct in the sense that our world, and the world we would leave to our own children, was being steadily degraded, and it could be argued that their lecture served as a self-denying prophecy in the sense that it forced some of us to take this degradation seriously. The same could be said of those who warn of the deleterious effects of digitization.

Interestingly, supporters of Amazon (both the company behind the Kindle and the rainforest it was named for) would claim that the printed book itself, in addition to being practically as antiquated as a Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet, is partially responsible for our environmental fix. Books and newspapers and magazines, they claim, lay waste to forests and clog landfills. By sheer coincidence, my office is right next door to one of the publishing industry’s biggest paper suppliers, and their executives consider this charge a calumny — the paper industry has made enormous strides in sustainability, and certainly isn’t sawing down old-growth trees to transform them into this month’s Vogue. When I asked one of them why the paper industry didn’t do a better job of getting the word out about sustainability, his response was to shrug and say, in effect, “yeah, we really should.”

At the same time, the shininess of our brand new and indisputably marvelous electronic devices tends to blind people to the fact that they, themselves, are destined for landfills a lot sooner that most printed books are, and, unlike books, are manufactured from toxic chemicals like coltan (Google the phrase “blood coltan” if you aren’t familiar with the term.)

There is a broader environmental consequence to the spread of digital culture. Given that digitization tends to reduce everything to its least tangible manifestation, a stroll down the streets of a major American city a decade or two from today may turn out to be a uniquely bleak experience. There may be few if any bookstores, no newsstands, no newspaper boxes, no stacks of free newspapers and city guides, no comic book stores, no greeting card and stationery shops, no Internet cafes, no video game stores, no record stores, no video rental stores (the last two are practically gone already), and far fewer libraries, movie theatres, galleries, and poster shops to arrest our attention, engage our intellect, and delight our eyes. It will be as if a neutron bomb had destroyed everything with a cultural component, and left standing only the bank branches, office towers, parking garages, and fast food joints.

Ah, but there I go being semi-apocalyptic. That is neither my nature nor my intention. What I advocate, instead, is that those who have the most invested in the physical manifestations of our culture (that means you, paper company down the hall, and you, publishing house that can’t see beyond today’s price wars to tomorrow’s consequences, and you too, local librarian who’s oh-so-terrified of appearing un-hip) speak up more loudly and more confidently in support of the richness and beauty of the printed book, and work much, much harder on ways that it can co-exist with, and enhance, the digital. No, if digitization does indeed dissolve everything in its path, and printed books end up becoming a niche enthusiasm or amusing antique, it won’t mean the world is coming to an end — only that it’s become a bit more bleak, and blank, and featureless.