“Did He Just Call Books ‘Clutter?’” (I Did. And Here’s Why.)

Image: Donovan Creative

Image: Donovan Creative

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.

Wayne Arthurson, winner of the EPL’s 2012 Readers’ Choice Award, sent me a persuasive article from the Washington Post titled “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay.”

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?

15 thoughts on ““Did He Just Call Books ‘Clutter?’” (I Did. And Here’s Why.)

  1. I’m not sure that the people who are worried about the influence that e-books are having on the publishing industry are actually all that concerned about form – and if they are, well, they’re wrong, for the reasons that you point out here. I think they’re far more concerned about the fact that eBooks are an invitation to a quasi-monopolistic marketplace (even more so than the one created by Chapters/Indigo) in which publishers – the ones who do the heavy lifting that turns manuscripts into readable, lovable literature – get squeezed against the sides. That may not be the case, but we shouldn’t confuse superficial concerns about form with very real ones about function.

    And I don’t think music is a very good analog for books. Musicians can use their recordings as a kind of loss-leader that build audiences for their live performances, which they can and do make a good bit of money from. Authors have no such recourse – nobody’s paying to go to readings these days, or certainly not in the kinds of numbers that would provide the kind of financial support a writer needs to make a decent living.

  2. Great read and a great topic for discussion Omar. The EJ writer did kind of throw you under the bus there (even if it was done amiably).

  3. Thanks, Jarett, though I think Michael (who’s a friend) fairly reported on my views on literature in the digital age. I said what I said and it was up to my to justify — and because I didn’t then, I’m dealing with the consequences now.

  4. Pingback: “Did He Just Call Books ‘Clutter?’” (I Did. And Here’s Why.) | Metro Writers in Residence « Gregg Rowe

  5. I would disagree with Max. The loss-leader analogy for music is quite similar to books. There is real money for authors in speaking fees and consulting gigs not book sales. How much do yo think Matt Taibbi gets for a speaking gig booked through the Lavin Agency as opposed to what he picked up as an advance for Griftopia? http://www.thelavinagency.com/speaker-matt-taibbi.html

    As an aside I still haven’t cottoned on to this whole e-book thing so carry on with that whole discussion.

  6. Duncan: you’re talking strictly about the very top end – the 1 per cent, as it were. How many “touring” writers are there? Is there even such a thing? Halfway decent musicians can put out an album on an indepedent label, build a following and make money playing live gigs as a musician while they hone their craft and grow their audience. Halfway decent writers who try to do the same thing starve to death.

  7. Speaking of “edit” capabilities … typos are understandable, Max.
    But oh Omar! I’m more concerned that my former editor “mis-spoke” and used bad grammar.
    Check your quote: “Books are the clutter” — his words, dear reader! Not mine! — “that are going to slowly get removed from libraries.
    Now shouldn’t that be “Books are the clutter that IS going to slowly get removed …” [verb agrees with singular noun ‘clutter’ not ‘books’]
    I’m sure that would never have gotten past you while you were AE at Avenue.
    Just razzing you … we all talk a lot less formally than we write. Keep on spreading the word(s); you’re gonna do just fine.

  8. I sat down and read a hard cover novel last week. I read this article on my phone in my hand.

    It’s a great discussion to have, and I think it will come down to nostalgia, tradition, personal preference, form and function.

    And really, all our “old” phones, tablets, laptops etc. are clutter as well.

  9. I am also inclined to agree that digital music is a bad comparison. Even putting aside the rare complaint that the popular MP3 format degrades the sound, recorded music has always required a device or player; a Victrola, eight-track, iPod, or what have you. The devices have gotten to be smaller, more portable and more powerful, but without the device, you can’t do anything.

    With traditional books, this is not the case. (And I’m conflating the text and the physical book artifact to be one and the same; here, the medium IS the message.) EBooks effectively take stand-alone items and require them to be device-driven. You can’t simply find an eBook and dig into it–again, you’ll need a device to operate it, and even then, you might not have the RIGHT device.

    I feel our library is doing right by providing options to the city, and eBooks are part of that option. It would similarly be tragic if a viable option were ever t be taken off the table.

  10. I must admit, I gasped at the idea of calling books clutter, but you make some good arguments, Omar.
    I am a book-lover, I’ll admit it, and no matter how many books I can download for free or pay to download onto my phone or eReader, I still have a book-collecting compulsion. I think perhaps in the future that is what it will come down to. There will be people (likely such as myself) who hold onto books not just for the information in them but for the sense of nostalgia they bring with them. It wasn’t the same reading an electronic book to my boyfriend as it was reading a hardcopy, but that’s just me. Books–the paper kind–have been a intergral part of my existence since I was very young, and there are few things more reassuring to me when I am bored or nervous than the visceral, physical weight of a trusty book in my hand or my purse or my bag.
    However, though I’m still really new to electronic book forms, I know I will also have to embrace them in the future, as reluctant as I am to do so.
    But don’t think for a minute I’ll ever get rid of my hardcopy books! Even if I have to carry them around in a hunderd-pound backpack, I will!

    Great topic! I think you succeeded in creating discussion.

  11. I’m fairly passionately pro-E-reader. I’m also a great lover of books. But as someone who has hauled my 70+ boxes of books over 14 moves, the idea that my collection can fit in my hand is a pretty significant boon. But it’s not just about practicality and ease – I actually prefer my reading experience on my Kindle vs. a paper book. I love its aesthetics, and I love that I never have to worry about not having a book with me – my preternatural fear of boredom is pleasantly calmed by the knowledge that my “book” is always available to me.

    I do think that libraries, in order to stay an important part of our society, need to adapt and change with the new technology. Will there ever be a time when there are no physical books? Hopefully not – or at least not for a long time. But I think a book is so much more than its physical shell – and that’s why, for me, a digital copy is just as valuable as a hard copy. And I think that libraries are so much more than brick-and-mortar book storage halls. I think the EPL is doing a fantastic job of building the community that solidifies its place of importance. But in many ways, it has done so by embracing the value of the digital, and that kind of forward-thinking is necessary for its success.

    A side note about e-book sales: one of the reasons for the decline in e-reader sales is because the technology is so darn good, you don’t need to upgrade every time a new reader comes out. I love my second-generation Kindle, and have no reason to get a new one any time soon. Also, thanks to more and more libraries making digital rentals available, you don’t need to shell out money every time you want to read a digital book.

    Ironic that just four years ago, I wrote a paper condemning the e-reader to the 8-track brand of hell for my Masters program. I wouldn’t have dreamed I’d ever stand up for them. But now I’m a convert.

    Are books just “the clutter?” I’m not sure I’d go that far, and I hope that paper books don’t go the way of the dodo, but I think it’s short-sighted to discount e-books’ value and purpose. Is the technology perfect? Nope. But for me, it’s pretty darn great.

  12. I’m glad Marliss brought libraries back into this discussion, as that’s where it began with my mighty finger-pointing at Omar in the EPL elevator the other day. (As an aside: I read the hair-raising”clutter” comment in the print version of the Edmonton Journal which is delivered to my door. I can’t imagine a less congenial way of reading the daily paper first thing in the morning than by firing up my laptop and hunching over a glowing screen – which is the way I spend most of my day as a working writer. I love that hiatus between bed and screen that an actual paper or magazine gives me. But that just dates me as one of the transitional generation who grew up with paper books.)…I knew the jig was up with libraries back in the mid-1980s when I was doing research for a book about the lives of teenage girls, which meant I spent a lot of time in high schools. I noticed that the school library was being called the Information Centre – God knows what they were calling the librarians – as though, I thought, they were embarrassed to make reference to such an elitist activity as reading books, now that schools already had computer labs. But I agree now with Omar and others in this discussion that reading is an activity that involves all kinds of technologies with more to come: _reading_ is the key, not the way it is delivered. As someone who depends on digitized libraries, archives and collections to do her research on her home computer instead of travelling or paying a researcher, I am very grateful for this means of access to books, just as readers of the first printed codeces were grateful to be liberated from the need to visit scriptoria in faraway Canterbury or Paris or Athens to read the unwieldy scroll hand-copied by a medieval monk, and to read it out loud with all the other mumbling readers in the room, as was the style. But a cautionary word: to call paper books “clutter” even in the library of the future is like Gutenberg at his press calling the Dead Sea Scrolls “clutter.” Aren’t we glad that someone thought to stuff the Scrolls into jars for the future to find? I know librarians (or whatever they’re called) who shuddered at the cultural erasure signified by the wholesale destruction of university libraries’ card catalogues (into the furnace!) when the system went digital, even before we understood the foolishness of relying on the permanency of the electronic version of anything. Same goes for consigning entire library collections to landfill when only a proportion has been digitized: what then happens to our notion of cultural memory, not to mention the authority we vest in those Information Custodians to make the selection for us? Of course, every generation sheds “clutter”: I’ve not kept my parents’ ink-stained copies of the poems of Tennyson. Nor have I even kept the quickly-dated nonfiction books I once bought for research purposes – but I have donated them to the library precisely because they represent a layer of that cultural memory which can only be passed on as text once the generation has physically left the stage. Of course, the library/data centre may toss them out anyway….So what am I saying? As someone who has an office in the downtown library, I’ve marvelled for years at how the building functions as a gathering place (why aren’t those kids in school?!), even, gasp, for people reading – newspapers, magazines, old telephone books in the Heritage Room, computer downloads. It’s downright heart-warming. But what does it say about how we value cultural memory when the same building has done away with the Reference desk and substituted Walmart greeters? Oh, that’s what they calling librarians these days!

  13. Throughout our history EPL has worked hard to evolve and improve our services to best meet the needs of our customers. We have conducted surveys and focus groups with customers to find out what they think about our spaces, what they know about our services and equally importantly what they don’t know. Our customers told us that the Milner Library, in particular, with its services and materials divided between two 40,000 sq. ft. floors and with several service desks, could be a confusing place to visit. We also heard that while some people are completely comfortable walking into a public library and asking for assistance, others face social and cultural barriers to accessing the information and resources they need. With respect to the role of library staff this continues to evolve from one of specialists working in the back room or behind a desk to generalists who are adept at identifying customer needs and matching those with library services and resources – both within and outside library walls. By making the changes you mention we are helping people find what they need quickly and easily. Rather than passively sitting behind desks waiting to be approached, our staff engage customers by walking throughout the library and helping those who may need assistance. Friendly, approachable staff who greet customers with a smile are fundamental to making everyone feel welcome at the library.

    We are excited by the discussion generated by our new Writer in Residence and welcome the dialogue about the role of public libraries, our spaces, our content and our services.

  14. Pingback: Reflections on being a writer in residence | Metro Writers in Residence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *