Five days into my residency, I didn’t expect that I’d be getting my feet wet by sticking them in my mouth. But that’s what happened.
Yes, I called books “clutter” in the Edmonton Journal last week and deserved to be razzed for it, just as the Mighty Myrna Kostash did a second ago when we collided in the Stanley Milner library elevator. “It’s the writer in residence,” she quipped to the guy beside me, “the one that called books ‘clutter.’”
Clutter, it would seem, is the only non-permissible C-word in the literary community.
Though I was trying to be provocative and stir a public discussion about the future of physical books, I’m certainly embarrassed for the ineloquence and flippantness with which it tumbled from my mouth. More than anything, I regret its present tense.
It’s the library of the future that will have to deal with the reality of material literature in a nonmaterial world. But it’s something the libraries of today are preparing for as their role in communities change. EPL, for one, has led the charge in Canada and has emphasized not just its electronic circulation (eBooks, streaming music and the like) but its community outreach.
Following EPL, the new Surrey, BC library has de-emphasized books. In Michael Harris’s Walrus essay, “Stacked,” he takes note of some peculiar observations of the new bibliotheque:
“Scaling the vast helix of white that swirls around the library’s central atrium, I accosted a staffer who was preoccupied with asking children to please take off their shoes before jumping on the furniture. When I despaired at the measly number of books in the literature section, she explained, with diplomatic care, that I was missing the point. …
“Libraries like Surrey’s City Centre are right to do away with their stacks; the need for the books they have been collecting over the past few centuries has diminished. The culprit is all around us: that nebulous Cloud, the virtual place where movies, music, and books come from when you download them. It includes web-based email like Gmail and services like Google Docs or YouSendIt, and it replaces physical media with free-floating content. But as books go the way of clay tablets and papyrus scrolls, libraries are thriving.”
The library of today — and certainly of tomorrow — is one that offers a free public space and community events in a world that’s increasingly private and costly. Newcomers arrive to learn how to navigate the murky waters of immigration and seniors come to figure out this darn Facebook thingy. While others still come for the Jane Austen book club meetings, I can’t help but wonder if the Jane Austen groups of tomorrow will recite not from a worn paperback but off their tablets and eReaders.
There is, however, strong belief that while the digital revolution eviscerated CDs, DVDs, newsprint and possibly soon magazines, books are too resilient — too ingrained in society — to be gobbled up byte by byte.
In it, reporter Nicholas Carr analyzes not just the growth and decline of eBook and eReader sales, but the trends within. “How attached are Americans to old-fashioned books?” asks Carr.
“Just look at the results of a Pew Research Center survey released last month. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.”
He concludes not just that the rise of the electronic publishing industry is tapering off, but that the highest sales are among what we call “airport novels” — the Tom Clancys and Dan Browns, and many shades of 50 Shades of Grey.
“Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks. These are, by design, the most disposable of books.”
This is probably true of adult spending habits, but the future of books doesn’t rely on a generation that was educated on paper. It depends on the generation in classrooms today. And these classrooms are increasingly digital.
Every October during Read-in Week, I’m invited by my friend, poet Nick Reilly, to share a favourite book with his class. Each year, I read something off paper (indeed, I’m in transition between paper and electronic) to kids whose desks are conspicuously absent of it. Instead, I’m seeing more individual laptops and tablets connected to school-wide WiFi.
It wouldn’t be radical to think that it’s a matter of time before every Canadian student works off a tablet. (The value of teaching cursive writing, for example, has been of debate for years because, compared to the click of keys, it’s been dethroned as the most efficient writing method.) So it’s reasonable to also believe that text books and appointment reading will also be downloaded into their electronic notebooks.
When this is the reality — and I predict that’s a decade away — we will have a generation of people more familiar with books you click than those you flip. How that will inform their purchasing decisions when they’re old enough for an allowance, then wage, then salary, is obvious.
Whether this is a boon to literature or its breaking point is yet to be written. But to those who fear eBooks (and, with it, more self-publishing) will degrade the quality of literature, I ask them to consider the quality of music over the last decade. Has it gotten worse? I would argue that it’s as strong as it’s been since the 1960s and ’70s. Somehow, removing the various handlers of artists — the A&Rs, the HMVs — has actually made more experimental and, overall, better musicians (think post-Napster geniuses OK Go, Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamar).
Record stores, it would seem, were never as good a taste-maker as the Internet. Will the fate of literature be as lucky?