Mark it: We’re at the point in American civilization where the very existence of a literary culture is, in fact, newsworthy. That’s why the New York Times decided to run a column last week with the incredulous headline, “The French Do Buy Books. Real Books.”
The gist of the piece (which is actually pretty interesting and worth reading on its own) is that France has been able to sustain a bruised yet otherwise healthy bookselling industry, through a combination of market regulation and social norms. As Pamela Druckerman puts it, “the French treat books as special,” and the government is more than happy to make sure they’re treated as such. In France, as in a handful of other Western European states (plus South Korea), retailers are forbidden from significantly marking down the price of new books.
Congress isn’t likely to implement a similar regulation here in the United States anytime soon, and I’m not saying that it should. Instead, I just wanted to draw your attention to the remarkable difference that a modest regulatory adjustment can make. Public policy rarely makes it into stateside ruminations on the future of books; instead, the inevitable collapse of book-reading society is treated like some kind of geological process, with no accommodation made for human agency.
Case in point, a recent piece from New York magazine’s Kevin Roose that begins with a typically grandiose statement: “Software is eating the world. It’s also eating the book.” In other words, the e-reader juggernaut that was supposed to kill off the ink-and-paper book is now getting bludgeoned to death by the iPhone. The future of books is no longer the Kindle. The future is apps. Until the future becomes something else, anyway. The worst thing about prophets of inevitable technological progress, besides their obvious myopic tendencies, is their fondness of universalizing the particular. It’s not enough to observe that more people are reading books on their smartphones; you need to announce that The Future of Reading is Smartphones. Meanwhile, 42 percent of American adults still don’t even own a smartphone.
When journalists make such broad generalizations about the future of any commonplace activity, it just illustrates how much of what we call journalism amounts to closed-circle discussions between people of a particular socioeconomic strata. Nearly all gainfully employed, technologically savvy, New York-based reporters have smartphones. Probably most of them do the vast majority of their reading on smartphones, computers, and tablets. Most likely they’re pretty comfortable with that, and have the time or financial resources to keep up with further developments in reading apps for various devices.
But these journalists don’t come anywhere near to embodying the median human. We’re a pretty diverse species, and we interact with new technologies in a variety of different ways. So let’s dispense, as quickly as we can, with the obvious point that the experience of reading things online differs from the experience of reading things on paper in certain ineffable yet nonetheless substantial ways, and that a segment of the population derives similarly ineffable yet nonetheless substantial benefits from reading off of paper instead of staring at a glowing monitor. The sort of people who just feel more comfortable with a real book may be a small and shrinking part of the population, but they still exist (I’m one of them) and there’s no good reason to assume they’re going to die out any time in the next half century or so. It’s enough to just note their existence and move on.
The more salient point is that new technologies always get disseminated in a manner that is inherently uneven and unequal. Whether or not someone has access to it depends on her wealth, her social status, her location, and yes, public policy in her nation of residence. The Future of Reading won’t be universally accessible any time soon, for the simple reason that not everyone is a salaried member of the creative class.
Nor should we assume that new hardware and software will eventually penetrate the broader mainstream if the demand is there and the price drops sufficiently. That was a reasonable assumption back when our supply of non-renewable energy seemed inexhaustible, enabling theoretically limitless mass production and mass consumption. Now a different era in the history of civilization is peering over the horizon. With each passing year, it becomes more and more difficult to imagine that endless growth was ever anything but a civilization-wide mass delusion.
Limitless industrial production requires limitless energy. But even if we have the capacity to continually expand our energy consumption for a few more decades, we probably shouldn’t. Doing so will just make the comedown from the Age of Self-Delusion that much harsher.
For the most part, tech punditry has yet to reckon with the coming era of hard limits, which is why it can get away with extrapolating current First World consumption habits into the indefinite future. Instead of imagining a world of iPad-toting social media consultants, the purveyors of Skymall futurism should be thinking about what happens after the planet can no longer sustain their present lifestyle.
Once we reach that point, maybe the same people currently applauding the death of the book will envy the French, who have gone out of their way to preserve the sort of textual content you can read without consuming any electricity. Or maybe they’ll just look around and realize that nothing ever actually disappears into thin air. That’s something the best science fiction writers—our culture’s real futurists—have intuitively grasped for decades. If you don’t believe me, I’m happy to recommend a few books.