Just the fact of you being here with (too) many words on the screen makes you a rare breed. In a micro-attention world, you still embrace the long form; maybe you even write things out by hand sometimes, perhaps in cursive (I see you!). If you’ve gotten this far into this essay, you’re already in a select category of people spending more than a few seconds with an online story. Congrats, and welcome to the club! So while you’re here, let’s crack open a good book, okay?
Or at least let’s delve into the idea of a book as an example of things appropriately old school. Can a book ever be anything besides a metanarrative in which the author is omniscient and the reader is a spectator in someone else’s drama? We’ve already seen “an aesthetic and narrative fracturing that speaks to the fragmentation of meaning-making in the digital age,” as Cynthia X. Hua describes in Real Life, in which short-form internet media steadily have been supplanting the more unitary narrative structures of film and broadcasting. And we are seeing this dynamic play out not only in spheres of politics and media but in the fictional and dramatic realms, too.
The premium of today is not on being entertained, but on creating forms of entertainment. No matter how compelling a linear narrative may be in terms of its storylines and deep character development, it has to compete with the entire architecture of the “sharing economy”—which is not actually about sharing in the form of economic socialism or radical democracy, but rather centers the notion that people want to share cool things and get a buzz from being shared. Yes, a popular current series can capture attention for a while, but it’s hard to hold eyeballs (yuck). Even loyal viewers may be more interested in #hashtags about the show than the show itself.
Part of the liminal gratification pattern of the digital age comes when daily affirmations appear electronically and asynchronously, yielding an element of surprise and titillation with every buzz and beep that lets us know someone out there has noticed us. Even an adverse response still resonates with approval of a sort, and the more channels we have open the more glow we get. In this manner, the tether to our devices is more than mere convenience; it’s about conviviality as well, namely the set of social arrangements that define our desire and ability to live together.
This represents a conundrum with print media in particular, since its offerings (a) are mostly consumed in isolation, and (b) represent a narrative form of intake rather than collaboration. At least, this is how advocates of new media might characterize it; authors and publishers may suggest instead that a good book is actually a highly collaborative endeavor, and that one of its advantages over film and video is precisely that it leaves more room for the reader to actively construct the world(s) that animate its exterior settings and interior domains with equal force.
Yet “the book” as an artifact feels like a curiosity akin to the vinyl album (or even the CD). Yes, its quaint texture and retro stylings hold some appeal, even to the digital generation. But that’s more akin to a museum viewing moment than a real-life appendage: to wit, do you see people carrying around a stack of records when they want to bring their music along somewhere? The convenience and, perhaps more importantly, the inherent capacity to reorder the vast array of selections to fit one’s mood and mode of operation are the hallmarks of the on-demand world.
A book, alas, seems to promise none of this, even in its digital forms. The narrative is set by the author, the assembly by the editor, and the presentation by the publisher. Even imaginative writing and active readership don’t solve the dilemma—unless we rethink the book altogether as something more like one of those “choose your own adventure” children’s books in which the reader makes some decisions and flips through the book accordingly. This structure provides an essence of choice that is central to the new media era (Black Mirror even made a film like this, fyi).
Can we replicate this self-driven navigational system in texts and other artifacts generally? You can skip around when listening to a record, but it’s not easy to get the needle to land where you want (and it’s a hassle anyway); digital playlists are much more fluid. Movies can be paused and rewound, etc., when viewed at home, but even the more static big-screen experiences are at least shared ones with other peoples’ reactions being part of the show. A TV or streamed series usually is watched in order, but the viewer controls the timing so it feels interactive.
Would trying to become more self-guided eviscerate the book form altogether? I’ve seen some books create an alternative table of contents that allows readers to explore the chapters based on particular themes and topics rather than strictly in linear order. Ebooks and digital texts allow more skipping around. But an actual paper book still seems like the last bastion of long-form linear narrative remaining (even if the author gets creative with the timeline of the story).
I raise all of this here for a couple of reasons. One is that I had this recent realization that for a few years I kept starting books (not ones that I read for professional purposes) and then setting them aside because other content would intervene and the memory of the book would become stale. I wound up with about a dozen of these false-started books, and then I made it a personal project to go back and read all of them. Which I did, and it was great. Not every such book was a page-turner, but they were all worth the time and effort to complete. A spark was renewed.
This all carried over into the fall and winter, when I was teaching a literature-based course, yielding a sense of meaning (for me, and hopefully the students) in stories that are more time-consuming to access but also more timeless in their themes and aspirations. Now, I’m teaching another literature class with students who don’t have much access to online content, so the books we’re reading together have become primary points of contact with the world. Maybe I’ll say more about this experience another time, but for now the main point is that these books themselves can become the basis of robust conversations about issues that often get left aside.
Look, I’m not going all Fahrenheit 451 here, asking you to memorize whole texts and martyrize oneself with your book collection. Yes, there is something special about a book as both an artifact and a method of storytelling—but it’s also the case that there are many fine ways to engage with ideas and stories and content of all sorts these days. I think the key is to get back to thinking of ourselves as active participants and engaged readers willing to become invested. If Bowling Alone summed up the last epoch, perhaps this one will be about Reading Together.
NOTE: I’ve been working on this essay since like 2018 (not continuously, of course) and it’s still pretty much a mess. I keep trying to smooth it out, but then again being nonlinear has its virtues, right? So let’s just go with that.